Commas and adjectives

This blog post comes as a result of question posed. If you have a question you’d like answering, feel free to get in touch and I’ll do my best to answer.

When do you need to use a comma when listing adjectives and why do you see no comma between some adjectives?

You can describe something with more than one adjective. Sometimes that’s important. My cat was old and stupid at the same time she was ginger. Therefore, she was my stupid, old, ginger cat.

Notice the order of adjectives here. If you are describing something, do remember that the order should be:

  1. Quantity
  2. Opinion
  3. Size
  4. Age
  5. Shape
  6. Colour
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Purpose

(That’s not to say you can’t play with this rule in fiction. Rules are, after all, meant to be broken!)

Back to commas and adjectives – and my cat.

My stupid, old, ginger, cat. Why are the commas needed here? Because it is a list and you can replace each of these with ‘and’ quite easily. My stupid and old and ginger cat. In My Grammar and I, the adjectives are described as being “equally important”. Another way we could think of that is the adjectives are equally unimportant: we can take them away and still have the same cat: my stupid, ginger cat or my old, ginger cat.

So far, so easy. Got a list of adjectives? Stick a comma in between.

If only it stayed that simple!

Let’s stick with my cat. My very stupid, very old, very ginger cat. Notice what I’ve done there? I’ve added a word before the adjective. This shows that the adjectives are “qualitative” or “gradable” (for more technical stuff, go grab a copy of New Hart’s Rules). If I can do that to all the adjectives, then they need that comma.

But what if they don’t? Not all adjectives are “qualitative” or “gradable”. The fish, my cat’s plaything, is edible. Can something be very edible? No, either it is or it isn’t and therefore it is a “classifying” adjective.

The large edible fish does not require a comma because they are two different types of adjective. We can have a very large fish but not a very edible one! (I know, we might use “very edible” to describe a tasty fish but we’re looking at grammar here – style comes later.)

If our fish was foreign, he’d be an edible, American fish. Because they are both “classifying” (can’t stick very in front of either of those) we’ll need a comma in between the adjectives.

Phew. Are you with me still?

Because here’s the get out clause if you’re not. I’m quoting directly from New Hart’s Rules 4.3.4:

“Writers may depart from these general principles in order to give a particular effect, for example to give pace to a narrative or to follow a style, especially in technical contexts, that uses few commas.”

In summary, if you can stick an “and” between them add a comma. Don’t if you can stick a “very” in front of one adjective and not the other.

And don’t worry too much, think about the pace and style of your writing.

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Proofread by Riffat Yusuf

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Fiction editor and proofreader.

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