Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 5: Adjectives and Commas

Image by Peter Arkle

I'm back with more punctuation tips!

Commas between two adjectives

When you have two adjectives in a row, sometimes you put a comma between and sometimes you don't. The fancy grammar explanation has to do with whether the adjectives are coordinate or non-coordinate, and their underlying semantic categories, but you don't really need to know all that. All you need is the rule of thumb.

Rule of Thumb:

If you can REVERSE the two words or put AND between them, and it still sounds okay, you need the comma (to show that the adjectives are equal).

If you can't reverse or put AND, you shouldn't put a comma.

Example 1:
The slippery, slimy frog (good)
The slimy, slippery frog (good)
The slippery and slimy frog (good)
You need a comma between

Example 2;
The big foreign car (good)
The foreign big car (sounds weird and unnatural)
The big and foreign car (sounds a little weird)
Don't put a comma


NOTE: If you've done the tests and it's still not clear (maybe one test sounds a little awkward, but not totally wrong), it can probably go either way, depending on what you want to emphasize. Just make the call and then don't worry too much about it.

Practice

For each sentence, insert or delete commas between adjectives as necessary.

1) I hated the stupid iron bars on the windows.
2) She worked twelve hours a day in a cold wet cave.
3) He sang to his laughing, gurgling baby.
4) They ate delicious, ham sandwiches in a bright airy diner.
5) The sleek, silk dress must have cost a fortune.
6) The fluffy purring kitten softened his hard unyielding heart.
7) We suffered through the long boring meeting.
8) They all understood the complicated, geometry problem.
9) No one wanted the old, beat-up, lawn chair.
10) Samantha's wide, happy smile shone like the warm summer sun.


Practice ANSWERS (Highlight everything from here to "End Practice Answers" to reveal them.)
1) I hated the stupid iron bars on the windows. (Correct as is)
2) She worked twelve hours a day in a cold, wet cave.
3) He sang to his laughing, gurgling baby. (Correct as is)
4) They ate delicious ham sandwiches in a bright, airy diner.
5) The sleek silk dress must have cost a fortune. (This one's a little iffy, but probably you don't want a comma because "silk dress" is one unit.  If you think "dress" is independent, and "sleek" and "silk" modify it equally, you can put the comma.  If it were "silky," you'd surely put a comma)
6) The fluffy, purring kitten softened his hard, unyielding heart.
7) We suffered through the long, boring meeting.
8) They all understood the complicated geometry problem.
9) No one wanted the old, beat-up lawn chair. (the comma between "old" and "beat-up" is correct, but you can't reverse "beat-up" and "lawn" (The lawn, beat-up chair), so you don't need a comma there.
10) Samantha's wide, happy smile shone like the warm summer sun. (Correct as is)
End Practice Answers
Any you disagree with?  Let me know below.  Because we all know punctuation can be slippery.


For more:  
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 4:  The Mysterious Case of the Missing Question Mark



Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at http://www.melindabrasher.com.

7 comments:

  1. Ahhh, this is one of my favorite topics, Melinda! Yay, you! Your readers may also be interested in June Casagrande's http://bit.ly/PunctuationBook and my multi award-winning http://bit.ly/FrugalEditor. June's http://bit.ly/GrammarSnobs is also good. It lets us know that we can adjust what we think are "rules" to the needs of a sentence. An example is when a sentence so many commas it confuses. We can rewrite the sentence or we can eliminate some of the commas. That can actually makes for more clarity.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, to me it's all about clarity, and sometimes breaking the rule adds clarity. Usually, though, the rules help the reader. And it's sometimes hard for the writer to see that, because she, of course, knows exactly what the sentence is supposed to say.

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  2. Melinda, great topic. I find commas the most tricky. I always use the Rule of Thumb for clarity. And, it really is all about clarity for the reader.

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  3. Good one! The comma issue has plagued me for years, so this is a great explanation.

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  4. Replies
    1. Glad you found it helpful, Romilda. Thanks for stopping by!

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