Adjectives: adding punctuation

Adjectives describe nouns, often strung together in front of a noun; these are called attributive adjectives, and are ordered in a specific way. It’s best to limit the number of adjectives before a noun because a lot of adjectives can give an unwieldy result, which can leave the reader reeling. Some adjectives need to be separated by a comma; others don’t; the choice is based on the type of adjective.

Adjective classification

There are two systems of deciding the punctuation of adjectives; it depends how on the system of adjective classification.

Gradable adjectives versus classifying adjectives

Adjectives are classified by OUP 2016 into gradable or qualitative adjectives on throne hand, and classifying adjectives on the other.

Gradable adjectives are those that can be used comparatively and superlatively (1–3) and with very (4).

  1. pretty, prettier, prettiest
  2. loud, louder, loudest
  3. wonderful, more wonderful, most wonderful
  4. very ugly, very quiet, very bad

Classifying adjectives cannot be used in the ways in (1–4); examples are given in (5).

  1. French, potable, wooden

Adjectives of different types don’t need to be separated with a comma (6–7).

  1. a beautiful wooden carving
  2. a wonderful Italian opera

Two or more gradable adjectives should be separated by commas (8–9).

  1. a beautiful, small ornament
  2. the big, bad wolf

If classifying adjectives occur together, they do not need to be separated with a comma if they ‘relate to different classifying systems’ OUP 2016: 77. What this means isn’t clarified in the text, but they give examples (10–12) to illustrate.

  1. French medieval lyric poets
  2. annual economic growth
  3. randomized controlled trial
OUP 2016 77

It is permitted to relax the rules if the narrative pace requires it or in styles that don’t use many commas.

Cumulative adjectives versus coordinate adjectives

Adjectives can also be classified according to their semantics, such as those that describe age, colour, origin, etc. GM no date uses a system similar to the system recommended here, and divides adjectives into cumulative adjectives and coordinate adjectives.

Cumulative adjectives belong to different semantic classifications and must appear in a fixed order. The specificity of the noun they modify increases with each cumulative adjective used (13–14). They are not separated by commas or and.

  1. purple English horned midge
  2. green Scottish biting midge

Coordinative adjectives are independent of each other, and don’t need to appear in a fixed order. They can be separated with and or a comma (15–16).

  1. green and pleasant land ↔︎ pleasant and green land
  2. green, pleasant land ↔︎ pleasant, green land

A simplification of this classification is given by rule (A), exemplified by (17–19).

    1. If you can insert and between the adjectives without changing the desired meaning, commas are required (optionally with and between the last two).
    2. If you cannot insert and between the adjectives without changing the desired meaning, commas are omitted.
  1. a deep and blue lake
  2. a deep, blue lake
  3. a deep blue lake

The lakes in (17) and (18) have deep water that is coloured blue. The lake in (19) is of unknown depth, but is coloured a deep shade of blue.

Modifying adjectives in a string of adjectives

In (19), deep modifies blue to give a particular shade of blue. However, (19) could be misinterpreted as (18). Clarification can be introduced with a hyphen (20).

  1. a deep-blue lake

Now, it is obvious that deep modifies blue and that the depth of the lake is unknown. Other examples are given in (21–24).

  1. long-stemmed red roses
  2. a flat-bottomed rowing boat
  3. an old sage-green dress
  4. a funny-looking porcelain ornament

Caveat: comma between adjective and noun

Whichever system you choose to decide whether commas should be used or not, never place a comma (or and) between the last adjective and the noun it modifies: (25) should be written as (26).

  1. sweet, sticky, dessert
  2. sweet, sticky dessert

Conclusion

Choose whichever system of punctuating adjectives that makes more sense to you or that results in a clearer sentence.

Whichever system you choose, stick to it consistently.

References