EDITING 101: 52 – Adjectives – and the Commas That Go With Them…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

Adjectives – and the Commas That Go With Them…

So, you’re merrily typing along and your character wants to put on a blue, silk, handmade scarf. Oh, wait a minute. Is that a silk, blue, handmade scarf or a handmade, silk, blue scarf? A blue, handmade, silk scarf? Oh dear!

Aha! Super Editor to the rescue!

(Imagine me swooping over your house and flying in your window, red pen in hand!)

(Ok, now imagine me 10 pounds lighter. Another ten. Ok, that’s better.)

Adjective order in English is not completely random, although what we’re going to discuss are more along the lines of guidelines rather than rules. The exception is when you’re speaking of words of general description along with words describing a physical state. These are known as coordinate adjectives and require commas. The order can be changed without altering the meaning and you are free to put the one you want to emphasize first:

  • Melissa has a round, yellow footstool.

  • Melissa has a yellow, round footstool.

You can tell when you have coordinate adjectives because you can use the word “and” between them (instead of the comma) and they make sense with the order reversed.

Supposedly, native English speakers have an intuitive sense about how adjectives should be ordered and automatically handle them correctly, but some writers seem to lack the gene that turned on that “intuitive” sense and struggle with it. 🙂 You may see some slight variations in this “intuitive” list, but not many. And generally, this order has remained consistent over a long period of time within the English language.

Adjectives that add more and more information about a noun are known as cumulative adjectives—the adjectives piggyback on each other and build up a mind picture of the object. The order cannot be changed:

  • Four large purple shapes slithered toward us.

  • Large purple four shapes slithered toward us.

  • Purple four large shapes slithered toward us.

You can see that only the first one makes any sense. The rule is that a stack of cumulative adjectives generally occurs in the following order: number (five, one), opinion/judgement/attitude (useful, lovely, ugly), size (big, small), age (young, old), shape (square, squiggly), color (cobalt, yellow), origin (Canadian, solar), material (granite, wool), and purpose (shopping, running).

You’ll notice that there are no commas in the list of cumulative adjectives. This remains true no matter how long the list of adjectives is, unless you wish to add some emphasis between two coordinate adjectives WITHIN the list of cumulative adjectives:

  • An ugly large heavy dirty old blue striped British nylon sleeping bag.

  • Pamela tripped over the tiny, new European plastic toy Edvard had left on the floor. (Comma added for emphasis—“tiny and new” and “new and tiny” mean the same thing.)

  • When you’re looking at six ugly huge black Martian space monsters, run away quickly!

Granted, these examples are just for fun. Very few writers would create a sentence that used so many adjectives!

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Internet Tracking’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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48 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 52 – Adjectives – and the Commas That Go With Them…

  1. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Susan Uttendorfsky of Adirondack Editing is back with a post about a punctuation “rule” most of us probably aren’t even aware of–even though we sort of know how to apply it. It’s fun to play around with what “sounds right” and speculate as to why.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Another good piece from Susan–a punctuation question we often probably don’t think much about. It’s fun to play around with what “sounds right” to native speakers and speculate as to why. I’ve argued that you really only need five comma rules (https://justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/commas-and-how-to-use-them-part-1/); I love your point that inserting a comma throws emphasis onto the word before it. I always enjoy your posts!

    Liked by 2 people

      • Here are my five, and arguing is okay. That’s how we know what our options are.
        “I reduced the number of “rules” to five, noting that in some cases, even applying the rule is a judgment call (e.g., note the use of one after “cases”). My five rules for when commas are needed are:

        After introductory elements (usually)
        Around interrupters (including nonessential modifiers; always)
        In direct address (always)
        Before “and” or “but” (and other coordinating conjunctions) in a list of three or more items (Long live the Oxford comma!)
        Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**). (usually)

        I argue that if you think you might need a comma and it doesn’t fit one of these categories, don’t insert it.

        **Trying to simplify what can look like the messiest of grammatical thickets!**

        Virginia

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Susan, it is always great to read your pointers. When we start to get lazy because we think we know it all, you very correctly push us (ever so gently) back onto the straight and narrow. Thank you. And yes, I do imagine you 20 pounds lighter.. it must be all your good deeds!

    Liked by 2 people

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