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Friday, April 3, 2015
Words & Language Toolbox

On commas and adjectives

By Paula LaRocque

A common punctuation problem in media writing is the unnecessary comma between multiple adjectives preceding a noun. Whether or not we should separate adjectives with commas is a simple matter — there are even some grade-school tricks to help. Yet that mistake litters otherwise polished media writing:

“She wowed in a gauzy, off-white, Zac Posen dress.”

“U.S. currency also bought him a 20-dollar, round-trip ticket to Maracaibo.”

“Layering a space with luxe furniture and artwork brings any plain, white room to life.”

“She took a serious fashion risk when she showed up for the TV fete in a white, backless Ralph Lauren jumpsuit and slicked-back hair.”

“Chop up and braise the lower, white portion of the bok choy stems in chicken or vegetable broth and sesame oil.”

“Police say the suspects left the scene in two, late-model cars.”

“She was all glammed up in a white, strapless Roberto Cavalli design with metallic accents and diamond jewels.”

“President Obama is expected to wield his veto weapon of choice this week — a black, Cross Townsend, rollerball pen.”

“She made sure you couldn't miss her when she made her way down the arrivals line in a bold, yellow Stephane Rolland cap-sleeved creation featuring a peplum detail.”

“She took home an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress but didn't win any awards for the velvet, magenta Nicolas Jebran dress she wore to the big event.”

All the commas in the above examples are wrong and should be deleted. Yes, I said all. Notice that each passage shows the same error — that of automatically placing a comma between adjectives modifying a noun even when that comma is not merely unnecessary but grammatically wrong.

Here’s the rule, simplified:

Place commas between two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Do not place commas between cumulative (or non-coordinate) adjectives. Also, never place a comma between the final adjective and the noun itself.

Coordinate! Cumulative! I know — it’s just such jargon that makes people hate grammar. But hang with me.

Coordinate adjectives are adjectives in a row, each of which separately and equally describes the noun that follows. Example: “Get ready for a tedious, endless meeting.” In that sentence, both “tedious” and “endless” describe “meeting.” And they describe it separately and equally — so much so that we can rearrange them with no change in meaning: “Get ready for an endless, tedious meeting.” If we cannot rearrange the adjectives, they are not coordinate. Example: “He owns a beautiful custom Jag.” We cannot say: “He owns a custom beautiful Jag.”

Rearrangement: That’s one way to tell whether our adjectives are coordinate and therefore need commas. Here’s another way: Substitute “and” for the comma. If it sounds OK — “Get ready for a tedious (and) endless meeting” — the adjectives are coordinate and need commas.

Let’s review our grade-school tricks:

1) If we can rearrange adjectives stacked before a noun, they are coordinate adjectives and need commas.

2) Or, if we can substitute “and” for the comma, the adjectives are coordinate and need commas.

Conversely, if we cannot rearrange multiple adjectives stacked before a noun or substitute “and” for the commas, the adjectives are not coordinate but cumulative and should not be separated by commas.

These simple tricks reveal that none of the grouped adjectives in our examples are coordinate. That’s why all the commas are wrong. For example, we would not say: “She wowed in a gauzy and off-white and Zac Posen dress.” Nor would we say: “U.S. currency also bought him a 20-dollar and round-trip ticket to Maracaibo.” And when we try to rearrange adjectives in yet another example, we get: “Police say the suspects left the scene in late-model, two cars.”

So how would our offending passages look if they were correct? Like this:

• wowed in a gauzy off-white Zac Posen dress

• bought him a 20-dollar round-trip ticket to Maracaibo

• brings any plain white room to life

• showed up for the TV fete in a white backless Ralph Lauren jumpsuit

• braise the lower white portion of the bok choy

• left the scene in two late-model cars

• glammed up in a white strapless Roberto Cavalli design

• expected to wield his veto weapon of choice this week — a black Cross Townsend rollerball pen

• made her way down the arrivals line in a bold yellow Stephane Rolland cap-sleeved creation

• didn't win any awards for the velvet magenta Nicolas Jebran dress she wore

Once again, we see that accurate copy is also the clearest, cleanest, simplest copy. And note: “clearest,” “cleanest” and “simplest” are coordinate adjectives. Give ’em commas.

Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest work, a mystery, is “Monkey See,” available on Amazon.com. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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