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A Word, Please: When to use commas, when not to use them

May 31, 2013|By June Casagrande

The handsome, articulate, intelligent man wore a bright green midriff peasant blouse.

Not really. No intelligent person would do that. But I offer up this sentence not as an example of fashion sense or IQ testing. It's an example of a comma situation that confounds many people yet is surprisingly easy to handle.

Did you notice that, in our sentence, there are commas between some adjectives but not others? If not, it could be a good thing: It means that the punctuation didn't leap out at you, which means it seems natural, which means you already have a sense of how to use commas between adjectives.


Of course, now that I've called your attention to those commas, you may be wondering if that sentence is punctuated correctly. It is. But that raises the question: How is it possible that some adjectives before a noun are separated with commas and some aren't?

It's because of the difference between coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives.

Coordinate adjectives modify a noun in the same way and to the same degree. None is more closely connected to the noun than others. This is how "handsome," "articulate" and "intelligent" function here. None is more integral than the others in understanding what kind of man this is.

He's a man, a regular man, who is intelligent, articulate and handsome all at once. Their equal footing makes them coordinate adjectives. And, according to the rules, coordinate adjectives are separated with commas.

Noncoordinate adjectives don't have such equal relationships with the noun. "Peasant" is a prime example. A peasant blouse is a specific thing, so "peasant" and "blouse" have a special relationship. "Green" and "blouse" aren't as tight. Sure, "green" tells us about a quality of the blouse, but it's less integral to the blouse's nature than it is to a noun like "light": a green light is a specific thing with the special meaning of "go."

Now consider the relationship between "bright" and "green." In our example sentence, they sort of build on each other. In "a bright green blouse," the adjective "bright" isn't modifying the noun "blouse" so much as it is modifying the adjective "green."

They're a pair with a special, almost cumulative relationship. So these are called noncoordinate adjectives and the rule is that noncoordinate adjectives that come before a noun are not separated with commas.

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