Comma Use with Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives

Here’s a punctuation problem that used to trip me up: when does one use commas between adjectives in a list? Consider the following examples:

♦Before running you out of town, we’ll have your cheating, lying, dimpled ass tarred and feathered.

♦Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the crisp red, white, and blue flag whipping in the wind.

♦When he served the rich chocolate layer cake for breakfast, I knew I was in love.

♦I can’t abide the size of my pores without the expensive, sheer nude mineral powder makeup that Holt’s sells.

Some adjectives in these sentences are separated by commas, and some aren’t. Why? The answer depends on whether the adjectives are coordinate or noncoordinate. Coordinate adjectives need to be separated by commas, and noncoordinate adjectives don’t.

To determine if adjectives are coordinate, ask yourself if the adjectives can be separated by and, and if the adjectives make sense if you mix up their order.

♦Before running you out of town, we’ll have your dimpled and cheating and lying ass tarred and feathered.

♦Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the blue and red and white and crisp flag whipping in the wind.

The first sentence passes the two conditions stated above: we can sensibly put and between the adjectives, and we can sensibly change their order. But the second sentence is a bit different. Crisp doesn’t fit the bill like the other adjectives in the sentence. We can put and between red, white, and blue and change the order of these colour adjectives, thus a comma should separate them. But what about crisp? It makes more sense to say “the crisp blue and red and white flag.” There is no comma after crisp because it doesn’t satisfy the two conditions.

This explanation is pretty good, but it has always left me making decisions by feel rather than by a real understanding of the adjectives and how they are being used. So I was happy when the other day I came across a source that cleared things up. Adjectives have a royal order — who knew? Not me. (But here’s what I do know: The linked article explains that categories of adjectives “comprise the royal order.” That’s a classic example of the misuse of comprise. The correct thing to say is that the categories constitute, or make up, the royal order. But I digress.) The royal order consists of the following categories: determiner, observation/opinion, size/shape, age, colour/flavour (flavour is my own addition), origin, material, and qualifier. Adjectives of the same category need to be separated by commas (that’d be your coordinate adjectives); adjectives of different categories don’t require commas (your noncoordinate adjectives).

This was a revelation to me. Parsing adjectives according to the royal order works every time, taking the guesswork out of the decision-making process.

So let’s go back to the last two examples. We wouldn’t say “layer and chocolate and rich.” But now that we know about the royal order, we can further ascertain that these adjectives are from different categories. Rich and chocolate and layer are respectively from the observation/opinion, colour/flavour, and qualifier categories, so no commas are needed. Likewise, in the last sentence, a comma is needed between expensive and sheer, which are both observations/opinions (same category). No commas are required, however, between the other adjectives because they belong to different categories.

Although I know better than to blindly follow rules, this one has me doing a little happy dance.


1 Comment

Filed under coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives, punctuation, the royal order of adjectives

One response to “Comma Use with Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives

  1. Pingback: Rob Ford Sweats the Big Stuff; Copy Editors Sweat the Small Stuff | mEDITations

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