Friday, January 9, 2015

Commas with Coordinate Adjectives

The Order of Series Adjectives
     There’s an idiomatic order to follow when using more than one adjective in front of a noun, and commas aren’t used between the adjectives. 
(As an aside here: Never, ever place a comma between an adjective and the noun it is describing: for example, a long, black, car. The comma between black and car is wrong--it has always been wrong, and it will forever be wrong.) 
     Although, like everything else in this world, there are occasional exceptions, the conventional order is as laid out below with a couple examples of how this works out:

evaluation          \   cantankerous
 size                \
  shape               \
   age                 \   
blue     \
German   \
      made of             \
sports   \
        the noun  
car      \   codger

What Are Coordinate Adjectives?
      The matrix above is how we order series adjectives. We ordinarily say “blue German sports car,” we don’t normally say “German blue sports car.” Likewise, conventional English usage says “cantankerous old codger,” not “old cantankerous codger.” There are plenty of exceptions in popular use, of course, but this is the usual heirarchy of series adjectives. What kind of sports car is it? It’s a German one. What kind of German sports car is it? It’s a blue one. You can see that all of the levels of description except the topmost (evaluation) are more-or-less objective in nature: size, shape, color, age, like that.
     Sometimes we use two or more adjectives of the evaluation class (evaluation adjectives are subjective observations such as “an interesting theory,” “a beautiful sunset,” “effective methods,” etc.) in series. For instance, a person might be described as both kind and gentle. These are both evaluation adjectives; when two or more such adjectives are used in series, they’re called coordinate adjectives because they are of the same rank; they’re equal in position of precedence, so the series order is grammatically unimportant.
     If you want to use two evaluation adjectives in series, you can either place “and” between them and write
      a kind and gentle man
or you can place a comma between them and write
     a kind, gentle man
     Kind and gentle are coordinate adjectives, so they can be switched without harm if that better pleases your creative muse:
     a gentle and kind man
     a gentle, kind man
     There’s no injunction against using more than two coordinate adjectives in series, but the longer the string the more potential for looking overdone, so use your head:
     his energetic, efficient, ambitious assistant
     As coordinate adjectives, they can, if desired, be rearranged to suit you:
     his ambitious, energetic, efficient assistant   and so on
     Some writers would insert “and” after the last adjective, with or without the last comma:
     his energetic, efficient, and ambitious assistant
but it’s not needed with series coordinate adjectives. The conjunction is a stylistic choice: not wrong, just unnecessary.


  1. Commas and punctuation drive me batty. I find the 'and' guide useful. I recently read The Elements of Eloquence--brilliant and hilarious read-- by Mark Forsyth, and learned about Hyperbaton which dictates the order of adjectives but nothing about the punctuation.

  2. I've been out of school for quite some time and felt like this article was new information. I did not remember the 'order' of adjectives at all! So it is nice to have a pity refresh-my-memory article to reconnect some of my latent neurons.


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