Friday, March 20, 2009

Using Commas with Adjectives

If you use several descriptive words in a row, where do you put commas? Or do you?

Here are a couple of my theories on that subject. First, if you can put the word and between the words, you should use a comma between them.

For example, Mary is an impish-looking, animated, slim white girl.

This sentence easily could read this way: Mary is an impish-looking and animated and slim white girl. But you wouldn’t say she was a slim and white girl. So, according to that example, you put a comma where you use each and.

Here’s my second theory. If you can rearrange the descriptive words, you should use a comma before each of the words that you can move.

Using the same example, you could write that Mary is a slim, animated, impish-looking white girl. However, it wouldn’t work to say Mary is a white, slim, animated, impish-looking girl. The word white needs to stay next to girl because it is an integral part of her basic description, so you don’t need a comma before it.

These theories hold true for a similar example: She was a smart, insightful, funny woman. You can insert and between each of these adjectives, and you can also rearrange them without changing the meaning of your sentence.

And here’s another example that conforms to my ideas: Tom owns a rusty, nicked, dull fishing knife.

But, fellow editors and other interested parties, how would you punctuate these examples, and why?

1. Justin has a long lean frame.
2. Sarah prefers soft white cotton briefs.
3. Eric prizes his shiny maroon restored ’57 Chevy.
4. The girl wore a hooded red rain cape.
5. She was doused in a sadness as pervasive as spilled cheap perfume.

I wish the English language would always comply with my theories. It would be easier on everyone, especially me.

Shelley Thrasher

Shelley has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, and posts selections at

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  1. Now all I have to do is remember what you just wrote. That's the tricky part.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. I am terrible at commas so I guess I should try and see if I've learned anything.

    1. Justin has a long, lean frame.
    2. Sarah prefers soft, white cotton briefs.
    3. Eric prizes his shiny, maroon-restored ’57 Chevy.
    4. The girl wore a hooded, red rain cape.
    5. She was doused in a sadness as pervasive as spilled, cheap perfume.

    Hmm. That last one was tricky, complicated and hair-brained.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    Those five examples are the kind that give me headaches, but I'll try to explain my take on them.

    1. I wouldn't use a comma in this sentence because it seems to me that you need to put "lean" right before "frame." So, if you can't switch "lean" and "long" around, you don't need a comma.
    2. Again, to me, "white" and "cotton" belong right in the front of "briefs." Therefore, I wouldn't use a comma after "soft" for the same reason as in number one.
    3. Hmm. Number three really stumped me. I'm leaning toward a comma after both "shiny" and "maroon" right now.
    4. And this one stopped me too, but I finally decided to punctuate it exactly as you did because "red, hooded rain cape" sounds right to me.
    5. In this one I think the author is talking about cheap perfume as a unit, and "spilled" is an additional descriptor that can't be switched with "cheap." So when I edited this sentence, I determined that it didn't need a comma.

    I've used my theories for so long that they're second nature to me, but my authors continue to come up with sentences that defy them, so I have to wrack my brain and base some of my decisions on how a sentence sounds when read aloud.

    My bottom line is to try to suggest the punctuation that will help each sentence make the most sense.

  4. Morgan,

    Let me simplify my theories.

    If you can shift a string of adjectives around, use commas between them.

    If the word "and" makes sense between two adjectives, you can use a comma in place of each "and."

    Is that easier to remember?

  5. Doe! I almost left several of these alone. Especially the last one. I like your final rule explanation.

  6. I've noticed a growing trend where, when the adjectives number two (and sometimes three), the comma is omitted. This occurs in published books. Is this something you see frequently in your line of work?

  7. I haven't noticed that trend, though I will certainly be aware of your question when I read published books from now on.

    I have noticed that many of my authors, and some of our editors, use fewer commas in general.

    I'm rather old-school in that area, however, though I try to abide by the general rule that you should use a comma to tell the reader when to pause.

    Thanks for your question.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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