Adjectives: Comma or No Comma

5/11/20241 min read

Coordinating versus Cumulative

Standard advice on using commas with adjectives comes down cumulative and coordinating adjectives.

Coordinating adjectives can be said to have an equal role in describing the noun. This is why you should be able to put and between the two and it still mean the same thing.

  • A brave, strong boy is brave and strong.

Cumulative adjectives add together and actually become a defining part of the noun.

  • A blue touring car is not "blue and touring," so you'd never put a comma there.

Royal Order of Adjectives

Then there's the "Royal Order" to consider.

While we don't think about deliberately, there is an actual order that adjectives should go in. You wouldn't say a touring blue car, after all, because color always comes before qualifiers.

The order, unless for emphasis, is as follows: observation, size/shape, age, color, origin, material, and qualifier.

Generally, only adjectives in the same category need commas.

  • Hobo Santa has an enormous tangled white beard—not an enormous, tangled, and white beard.

  • And certainly not a white tangled enormous beard.

Personal Favorite: Function over Target

Now, all that can be a bit daunting and ambiguous at times.

So thank God for Australia (and the Australian Manual of Style). Theirs is probably the most helpful explanation on the topic of "adjectives and commas" I've found.

If you've heard all of this before, and you've just grown more frustrated, trust the Australians to give you some fresh perspective.

Instead of thinking of adjectives in categories of what they describe, consider their function: evaluating, describing, or categorizing/defining.

When adjectives share a function, you'll separate them with commas.

Hopefully, this starts to click with what people mean by "coordinating" and "cumulative."

  • Same function = coordinated effort to achieve one goal (like description)

  • Different function = accumulating/building up meaning where the sum is greater than its parts

Which finally allows us to explain why this matters—it really can affect the meaning.

  • "The big, blue truck" is just a truck that happens to be big and blue.

  • "The big blue truck" is the big truck (description) in an array of blue trucks (category).

  • "It was a long, happy hour together" is happy.

  • "It was a long happy hour together" not so much.