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A Word, Please: An important lesson about commas

May 11, 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 noncoordinate, 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 more than one "and" 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.

"To me, 'green, large clothbound book' means the same thing as 'large, green clothbound book,' the former just sounds funnier," one student wrote in our online message board. "The point remains that the two are essentially interchangeable, as far as their relationship to the clothbound book goes, and thus I assume that they're coordinate adjectives.... If I had been editing that phrase, I would've put a comma between large and green."

She had me there.

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