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A Word, Please: Varying levels of coordination

January 15, 2011

A Wall Street Journal article I read online contained this sentence: "Mr. Wheeler had been involved in a legal dispute with his neighbors who were trying to build a large, new home in a neighborhood designated as a historic preservation district."

The story was about Jack Wheeler, a former aide to three presidents, who was caught on video behaving strangely the day before his body turned up in a landfill. I'm hip deep in this fascinating story, and suddenly all I can see is that comma: "large, new home"? Really, Wall Street Journal?

Punctuation rules say to use commas between things called "coordinate adjectives." Even the people who don't know the term understand this. Most people would put commas between the adjectives in "It was a beautiful, stirring, memorable ceremony." Yet those same people would probably leave commas out of "He wore a ratty old green polyester sweater" — even though they may not know why.

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Coordinate adjectives work independently. In "a beautiful, stirring, memorable ceremony," each of the adjectives has the same relationship with the noun "ceremony." It was a stirring ceremony, and it was a beautiful ceremony, and it was a memorable ceremony. We could mix up the order of the adjectives — "It was a memorable, stirring, beautiful ceremony" — with no loss of meaning.

We could also replace each of those commas with the coordinating conjunction "and" and retain our meaning: "It was a memorable and stirring and beautiful ceremony." This is both the definition and the test for coordinating conjunctions: If they make sense with "and" between them, they are coordinate. Obviously, instead of writing all those "ands," we can use commas instead, with each comma standing in for this coordinating conjunction.

Now, if you look at "ratty old green polyester sweater," it's clear that not all adjectives work the same way. Try mixing up the order of the adjectives — "a polyester green old ratty sweater" — and you'll see that something different is going on here. Separating them with "ands" yields the same weirdness: "a polyester and ratty and green and old sweater." Clearly, not all these adjectives have the same relationship with the noun "sweater."

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