A Word, Please: Varying levels of coordination

A Wall Street Journal article I read online contained this sentence: "Mr. Wheeler had been involved in a legal dispute with his neighbors who were trying to build a large, new home in a neighborhood designated as a historic preservation district."

The story was about Jack Wheeler, a former aide to three presidents, who was caught on video behaving strangely the day before his body turned up in a landfill. I'm hip deep in this fascinating story, and suddenly all I can see is that comma: "large, new home"? Really, Wall Street Journal?

Punctuation rules say to use commas between things called "coordinate adjectives." Even the people who don't know the term understand this. Most people would put commas between the adjectives in "It was a beautiful, stirring, memorable ceremony." Yet those same people would probably leave commas out of "He wore a ratty old green polyester sweater" — even though they may not know why.

Coordinate adjectives work independently. In "a beautiful, stirring, memorable ceremony," each of the adjectives has the same relationship with the noun "ceremony." It was a stirring ceremony, and it was a beautiful ceremony, and it was a memorable ceremony. We could mix up the order of the adjectives — "It was a memorable, stirring, beautiful ceremony" — with no loss of meaning.

We could also replace each of those commas with the coordinating conjunction "and" and retain our meaning: "It was a memorable and stirring and beautiful ceremony." This is both the definition and the test for coordinating conjunctions: If they make sense with "and" between them, they are coordinate. Obviously, instead of writing all those "ands," we can use commas instead, with each comma standing in for this coordinating conjunction.

Now, if you look at "ratty old green polyester sweater," it's clear that not all adjectives work the same way. Try mixing up the order of the adjectives — "a polyester green old ratty sweater" — and you'll see that something different is going on here. Separating them with "ands" yields the same weirdness: "a polyester and ratty and green and old sweater." Clearly, not all these adjectives have the same relationship with the noun "sweater."

To get a better understand of how these adjectives are working, let's pare down our example to just "a green polyester sweater." When you consider making that "a polyester green sweater," you see we're not talking about a sweater that is polyester and green as much as we're talking about a polyester sweater that is green. "Polyester" and "sweater" form a single idea that in turn is modified by green.

That is the basic idea of noncoordinate adjectives. (I've also seen these called "hierarchical adjectives," which I like. But this term is rare, garnering only 34 hits in a Google search compared with 10,800 hits for "coordinate adjectives.") Noncoordinate adjectives are not separated by commas because they have an almost cumulative effect, with each one becoming integral to the thing it's modifying.

When you're not sure whether to put commas between your adjectives, try plugging in "ands." If they seem natural between your adjectives, use commas. If not, don't.

Of course, this is art, not science. Some editors would use no commas in "a ratty old green polyester sweater" while others would put one between "ratty" and "old." But none would put a comma before "polyester."

I believe the Wall Street Journal meant to suggest a new home that was large — not a home that was new and large. The awkwardness created when you change "large new home" to "new large home" reinforces my suspicions.

That's why I think that, this time, the Journal made the wrong comma call.

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.

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