Pause before you place that comma

CommaJust because you have two or more adjectives before a noun doesn’t necessarily mean you need to place a comma between each one. This is one of my biggest pet peeves as a copyeditor, right up there with hyphens attaching a -ly adjective to another adjective (ex. publicly-owned building should be publicly owned building)  or two spaces after a period. And here recently, I’m seeing more of it. I can understand why. It becomes almost a second nature to pop in a comma between those adjectives; however, you must resist that urge!

Commas are only placed between two or more coordinate adjectives that modify the same noun. Examples of this are highlighted below:

  • Betsy is an obedient, loyal dog. (Both obedient and loyal are used to describe the noun, dog.)
  • Prepare for a hot, humid day. (Hot and humid both describe the day.)
  • He paused in his cruel, callous actions to cackle. (In this instance, cruel and callous describe the type of actions occurring.)

Now the following sentences also have two adjectives in front of a noun, however, they do not receive a comma:

  • The old brick house loomed in the distance.
  • Her thin cotton dress displayed some fraying at the bottom.
  • The red metal roof gleamed.

In all instances above, the first adjective is modifying the following adjective and the noun as a whole.

Well, it seems easy enough, but how do you know if you are doing it right? The approach I had been taught was to substitute “and” between the adjectives. For example, “Betsy is an obedient and loyal dog.” The sentence makes sense with the addition of the “and.” However, try doing that with one of the latter three options. “The old and brick house loomed in the distance.” Now that does not sound good at all, does it? Or how about “The red and metal roof gleamed.” That also doesn’t sound quite right.

If the “and” approach doesn’t work for you, one of my friends had found another method that works for her: switching up the adjectives’ positions. For example, “Prepare for a humid, hot day.” The adjectives in this alternative positioning still make sense. Now let’s try this same approach with one of the sentences that doesn’t utilize a comma: “Her cotton thin dress displayed some fraying at the bottom.” This makes very little sense.

For additional resources on this subject, visit Purdue OWL or Punctuation Made Simple. My good friend, Rachelle Shaw, also maintains an impeccable blog with several grammar topics called From Mind to Paper.

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