EDITING

Ask Our Editors: Commas with Adjectives

March 6, 2019

Ask Our Editors: Commas with Adjectives

Q: Can you explain when to use a comma between adjectives? I still don’t always feel sure. Thanks!

A: This is a tough one, so don’t feel bad about being unsure. Just to quickly review the Chicago rules:

Commas with coordinate adjectives (6.36): “As a general rule, when a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are separated by commas. Such adjectives…can also usually be reversed in order and still make sense.” 

  • Shelly had proved a faithful, sincere friend. (Shelly’s friendship has proved faithful and sincere.)
  • It is going to be a long, hot, exhausting summer. (The summer is going to be long and hot and exhausting.)

No comma with cumulative adjectives (5.91): “If one adjective modifies the noun and another adjective modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun, the adjectives are not considered coordinate and should not be separated by a comma.”

Chicago gives the examples lethargic soccer playerwhite brick house, and wrinkled canvas jacket as examples of comma omission, because in these cases the second adjective is more closely related to the noun than the first one—it’s a soccer player who’s lethargic, a brick house that’s white, and a canvas jacket that’s wrinkled.

If you contrast those with the examples for coordinate adjectives, you can see that the coordinate adjectives all have the same “weight” in their meaning; none are more closely tied to the noun than the others. Here are a few more:

  • She sat on the soft velvet couch. (It’s a velvet couch that’s soft.)
  • She sat on the soft, worn couch. (The couch is both soft and worn.)
  • I swallowed the bitter migraine pill. (The migraine pill is bitter.)
  • I swallowed the bitter, chalky pill. (The pill is bitter and chalky.)

Hope that sets your mind at ease!

 

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