A Word, Please: Coordinate adjectives need commas
The handsome, articulate, intelligent man wore a bright green midriff peasant blouse.
Not really. No intelligent person would do that. But I offer up this sentence not as an example of fashion sense or IQ testing. It’s an example of a comma situation that confounds many people yet is surprisingly easy to handle.
Did you notice that, in our sentence, there are commas between some adjectives but not others? If not, it could be a good thing: It means that the punctuation didn’t leap out at you, which means it seems natural, which means you already have a sense of how to use commas between adjectives.
Of course, now that I’ve called your attention to those commas, you may be wondering if that sentence is punctuated correctly. It is. But that raises the question: How is it possible that some adjectives before a noun are separated with commas and some aren’t?
It’s because of the difference between coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives.
Coordinate adjectives modify a noun in the same way and to the same degree. None is more closely connected to the noun than others. This is how “handsome,” “articulate” and “intelligent” function here. None is more integral than the others in understanding what kind of man this is.
He’s a man, a regular man, who is intelligent, articulate and handsome all at once. Their equal footing makes them coordinate adjectives. And, according to the rules, coordinate adjectives are separated with commas.
Noncoordinate adjectives don’t have such equal relationships with the noun. “Peasant” is a prime example. A peasant blouse is a specific thing, so “peasant” and “blouse” have a special relationship. “Green” and “blouse” aren’t as tight. Sure, “green” tells us about a quality of the blouse, but it’s less integral to the blouse’s nature than it is to a noun like “light” — a green light is a specific thing with the special meaning of “go.”
Now consider the relationship between “bright” and “green.” In our example sentence, they sort of build on each other. In “a bright green blouse,” the adjective “bright” isn’t modifying the noun “blouse” so much as it is modifying the adjective “green.”
They’re a pair with a special, almost cumulative relationship. So these are called noncoordinate adjectives and the rule is that noncoordinate adjectives that come before a noun are not separated with commas.
All this may seem abstract and difficult to put in use. But in fact, there’s a litmus test — two, really — that can help you get these right with no brain strain at all. The name “coordinate adjective” is the clue. It hints at coordinating conjunctions, namely “and,” which is the only tool you need to punctuate adjectives right.
When in doubt, try putting “and” between the adjectives. If it works well, separate the adjectives with commas. A handsome and articulate and intelligent man is a handsome, intelligent, articulate man.
But don’t use commas anywhere “ands” seem unnatural: “a bright and green blouse” isn’t what we mean by “a bright green blouse.” “A midriff and peasant blouse” isn’t exactly what we mean when we talk of a “midriff peasant blouse.”
When this trick leaves you uncertain, just try changing the order of the adjectives. If they’re interchangeable — as in an articulate, intelligent, handsome man — they’re coordinate. If they’re not interchangeable — as in a peasant, green, midriff, bright blouse — they’re not.
In rare cases, you could go either way: “a beautiful, sunny day” and “a beautiful sunny day” are both right, depending on the writer’s intended emphasis. Is it a day that’s sunny and beautiful? Or is it a sunny day that’s beautiful? In these cases, it’s up to you.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.