A Word, Please: Comma usage has yet another rule

Before I started teaching copy-editing courses, I assumed that one of the nice things about being a teacher would be sharing hard-earned expertise with wide-eyed students awed by my vast knowledge. Little did I know that I’d be the one getting the lesson, or that the lesson would be this: My knowledge isn’t as vast as I thought it was.

I figured this out recently when my class was learning about commas. In this course, we tell students to place commas between adjectives like the ones in “He was a nice, respectful, polite, pleasant man.” But do not, we tell them, put commas between adjectives like the ones in “He wore a light yellow collared shirt.”

Here’s how we explain the difference. The first example contains what are called “coordinate adjectives.” In the second, the adjectives are non-coordinate, which I’ve also heard called “hierarchical.”

Coordinate adjectives, as it’s said, all modify the noun to the same degree. They’re the ones that would make sense with a coordinating conjunction between them, namely “and.” So our first example gets commas because “ands” would work well in their place: “He was a nice and respectful and polite and pleasant man.”

Our second example would not work so well if you replaced the commas with “ands”: He wore a light and yellow and collared shirt. In this sentence, the adjectives are intended to build on each other. That means they’re not interchangeable, either: a collared yellow light shirt.

So, as I tell students, there are two tests to determine whether you should put commas between your adjectives: Try putting “and” between them and also try changing their order. These tricks will tell you right away whether to use commas except, of course, when they don’t.

I had always put a lot of faith in this system — perhaps too much, as I learned when students started asking me about a specific example from our reading material: “a large green clothbound notebook.” Our textbook says this phrase takes no commas. But the reason isn’t so clear.

“To me, ‘green, large clothbound book’ means the same thing as ‘large, green clothbound book,’ the former just sounds funnier,” one student wrote in our online message board. “The point remains that the two are essentially interchangeable, as far as their relationship to the clothbound book goes, and thus I assume that they're coordinate adjectives... If I had been editing that phrase, I would've put a comma between large and green.”

She had me there.

Language rules aren’t always cut and dried. Pay close enough attention in your reading and you’ll start to notice that professional editors handle these situations differently.

I prefer “large green clothbound notebook” without any commas precisely because, as the student said, “a green large clothbound book” sounds funny. That, to me, means that these two adjectives don’t quite modify the noun to the same degree. Its greenness is more integral to its identity than its largeness.

After all, a book can be any color in existence. But it can’t be any size in existence. It can’t be as big as the moon or as small as an atom. A large book is large only by book standards. Color is more a defining characteristic of a book than the size. Thus, the two adjectives don’t modify the noun to the same degree.

So while the writer may have been talking about a clothbound book that is large and green, it seems to me she was talking about a green clothbound book that is large. Either way, I’ve learned an important lesson about commas.

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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