More Than One Adjective–Comma or No Comma?

yellow comma guyWe’ve all done it. The only place your characters can take refuge is in a spooky old house. Or is it a spooky, old house? Dang, what was that rule again?

Fear not. I’m here to explain it for you.

Use a comma if the adjectives are coordinate.

You’re probably thinking, gee, thanks–that clears up nothing.

Okay. Coordinate means the adjectives have equal status; neither one is subordinate to the other. Purdue (https://owl.english.pudue.edu/owl/owlprint/607/) recommends asking yourself the following two questions:

  • Does it make sense if the order of the two adjectives is reversed?
  • Could you use an and in between the two adjectives?

This is a quick and dirty test that will work most of the time.

  • Harsh, bitter Mordor was nobody’s idea of a vacation spot.
  • Handsome, powerful Superman could never get Lois Lane to give him the time of day when he was Clark Kent.
  • Calm, enigmatic Ben Kenobi was much more Luke’s idea of a Jedi than short, wrinkly Yoda.

This of course means there are times when the adjectives are non-coordinate. And this is where you’re going to have to learn about ordering adjectives. The above system always falls apart on certain examples.

Believe it or not, there’s an order to how you use adjectives. Native English-speakers do this without thinking, mostly.

1. quantity or number
2. quality or opinion
3. size
4. age
5. shape
6. color
7. proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material)
8. purpose or qualifier

As long as the adjectives are in different categories, they have a different weight. If they’re given in the correct order, they need no commas.

So a little old woman wouldn’t get commas, even though you could rationally call her little and old, or an old, little woman. Odd permutation there–when you switch out order for emphasis, a comma is needed.

  • She brushed out her long blonde hair. (#3 and #6 above)
  • Then she hit him with her big blue eyes. (same)
  • But the prince rode off on his swift white charger. (#2, #6)
  • Nine intrepid companions set out from Rivendell with the Ring. (#1, #2)
  • Seven silly milkmaids had a food fight out in the barn.(#1, #2)
  • My two hyper Border collies need regular exercise.(#1, #2, #7)
  • God forbid I should toss out my husband’s ratty old hockey jersey. (#2, #4, #8)
  • She huddled into her gray wool shawl. (#6, #7)

Because numbers, sizes, ages, colors, proper adjectives, and purposes are rarely repeated when describing the same object, they are usually non-coordinate. Shapes can be repeated, but it’s relatively rare (big, blobby rolls of fat). Where you really see a lot of coordinate adjectives is with judgments, like for harsh, bitter Mordor; handsome, powerful Superman; or calm, enigmatic Ben Kenobi (category #2).

So really, the best system I’ve found is to use commas between adjectives when they fall into the same category (usually a judgment) or when they are out of order in ranking, usually for emphasis.

  • The big, bad wolf huffed and puffed. (#3, #2)
  • The gold, ornate scrollwork was really quite impressive. (#6, #2)

So can you answer the first question I asked? It would depend on the order of the adjectives.

  • The plucky protagonists ran into a spooky old house. (#2, #4–no comma)
  • The pucky protagonists ran into an old, spooky house. (#4, #2–needs a comma)

Okay, that was WAY more information than you wanted, most likely. But this system works when the other one breaks down.

I hope this helped. Keep writing. šŸ™‚

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Avid writer and reader, especially of fantasy. Learning about social networking and always interested in honing my writing skills. Contact me at cathleentownsend.com.

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8 comments on “More Than One Adjective–Comma or No Comma?
  1. Fantastic stuff, thanks for sharing! This sort of thing needs to be said.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Katharine Tree says:

    Thanks for the adjective order list. I had always wondered if something like that existed, but never run across it (and I have a Ph.D. in Semantics … from Purdue.)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I love this post. It makes perfect sense, but so many of us have occasions when we have to think long and lard. I had an amazing English teacher who coached me through my English exams (over 20 years ago), and I will always remember one tip she gave me. Say it aloud, if you naturally pause as you say it, add a comma!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good tips! I always get tripped up by using two adjectives. I usually throw in a comma if I “feel” like it. It’s good to have a more concrete reason than that! šŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

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