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A Word, Please: Comma usage has yet another rule

May 05, 2012|By June Casagrande

Before I started teaching copy-editing courses, I assumed that one of the nice things about being a teacher would be sharing hard-earned expertise with wide-eyed students awed by my vast knowledge. Little did I know that I’d be the one getting the lesson, or that the lesson would be this: My knowledge isn’t as vast as I thought it was.

I figured this out recently when my class was learning about commas. In this course, we tell students to place commas between adjectives like the ones in “He was a nice, respectful, polite, pleasant man.” But do not, we tell them, put commas between adjectives like the ones in “He wore a light yellow collared shirt.”

Here’s how we explain the difference. The first example contains what are called “coordinate adjectives.” In the second, the adjectives are non-coordinate, which I’ve also heard called “hierarchical.”

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Coordinate adjectives, as it’s said, all modify the noun to the same degree. They’re the ones that would make sense with a coordinating conjunction between them, namely “and.” So our first example gets commas because “ands” would work well in their place: “He was a nice and respectful and polite and pleasant man.”

Our second example would not work so well if you replaced the commas with “ands”: He wore a light and yellow and collared shirt. In this sentence, the adjectives are intended to build on each other. That means they’re not interchangeable, either: a collared yellow light shirt.

So, as I tell students, there are two tests to determine whether you should put commas between your adjectives: Try putting “and” between them and also try changing their order. These tricks will tell you right away whether to use commas except, of course, when they don’t.

I had always put a lot of faith in this system — perhaps too much, as I learned when students started asking me about a specific example from our reading material: “a large green clothbound notebook.” Our textbook says this phrase takes no commas. But the reason isn’t so clear.

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