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Commas with Adjectives

When do you put commas between adjectives?

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
February 10, 2011
Episode #262

Page 2 of 2

Use Commas When You Could Add an “And”

OK, I can tell—even from far away—that your head is spinning because of this esoteric terminology, when all you really want to know is what do commas have to do with these adjectives? Agreed. You don’t have to remember the names unless you want to impress your friends. Commas are what matter here. 

To determine if we need a comma between two adjectives that precede a noun, we need to return to the “and” test. I’m sure you remember the tall, dark, and handsome man we mentioned at the beginning of the show. You could be wordy and say, “The tall and dark and handsome man.” If you can separate the adjectives with “and,” then you can separate the adjectives with commas. Also, if you can rearrange the adjectives, then you can separate them with commas. We started with “The tall, dark, handsome man,” but “The handsome and tall and dark man” works just as well.

A Comma Can Change the Meaning

Sometimes, a pair of adjectives can be both coordinate and cumulative. Let’s take the adjectives “deep” and “religious” and pair them with the noun “experience.” If we say, “She had a deep, religious experience,” we’re using coordinate adjectives: She had an experience that was both deep and religious (or religious and deep). Now, let’s get rid of the comma: “She had a deep religious experience.” Here, the religious experience was deep. The adjectives are cumulative. Granted, the difference between the two is quite subtle.

Summary and Practice

Just remember that if you can reverse your two adjectives or can place an “and” between them, you need a comma.

And now our interesting, (comma) illuminating lesson has come to a close. Hope you had a grand old time (no comma there).

Answers to the Audio Quiz: 1) It’s an easy five-mile hike. 2) That was a long, hard run. 3) They endured a tough marital situation. 

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & Grammar Girl

This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

  1. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, pp. 209-210. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

  2. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, pp. 209-210. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
     

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