Friday, August 20, 2010

Adjectives, commas and confusion

A friend suggested that a post on comma usage might be a good idea. ‘Easy,’ I thought. ‘I’ll knock one up sometime when I can’t think of anything to blog about.’ So, leaving things until the last minute as usual, I sat down an hour or so ago to throw together a quick Dummies Guide to Commas.

HA! Did I say it would be easy? Silly me.

I started by thinking about the many different uses we have for the humble comma. Its main function, of course is clarity. Commas can remove ambiguity, as in the classic sentence: “The man was not killed, mercifully”. Take away the comma and its meaning might be interpreted quite differently!

Commas are also used to separate items in a list, as in “I need to buy oats, nuts, yogurt and cheese”. This is more complex than it looks. Do we use the Harvard (aka the Oxford) comma or not? Another blog post, that!

Commas are essential to the organisation of complex sentences, and this purpose alone could take up several posts. And they are, of course, placed between adjectives when more than one is used to modify a noun.

This last use of commas got me to thinking about the correct placement of adjectives before a noun, so I thought I could take a swipe at two problems with one blog post by talking about the order of adjectives and when to put commas between them. And that will, I’m sure, be enough discussion on both commas and adjectives to confuse everyone, including me.

The role of adjectives, so the Aussie Style Manual* tells us, is to “describe, define or evaluate an adjacent noun”. However, the Style Manual has put them in the wrong order, as we shall see.

If you are using two or three adjectives, you will, if you have native proficiency in the language, automatically place the evaluative one first, then the descriptive, and finally, the definitive. So we would say “An impressive old oak door”. Try putting those adjectives in any other order, and you will notice at once that the sentence takes on a certain strangeness, as if Santa Claus were suddenly to turn up wearing blue instead of red. It just isn’t right.

Evaluative adjectives are words such as lovely, ugly, charming and fascinating. They imply a value judgement on the part of the writer or speaker. Descriptive adjectives, such as large, hot, old, red and square show how the noun varies from others of its class, while definitive adjectives narrow the field still further by telling us something fixed and possibly unchangeable about an object; for instance, its origin (e.g. “Hungarian athlete”) basic material (“wooden door”) or purpose (“sailing ship”).

Now for the comma part. Sure, you put commas between the adjectives (but not between an adjective and its noun) but only when the adjectives are of the same kind. So you might describe a plant as having “small, hairy, prickly, dark green leaves”. (Note, however, that a string of definitive adjectives does not need commas. More on this below.)

A string of adjectives of different types doesn’t need commas, either. “John does enjoy a fine old tawny port” doesn’t need any commas at all, because the three adjectives are all of different classes: fine is evaluative, old is descriptive and tawny in this case refers to an intrinsic quality of the beverage, so it is definitive. (In other cases, such as “tawny hair” we are describing a quality that may or may not be permanent and so falls into the “descriptive” variety.)

Despite the above recommendation, there is actually a movement towards reduced comma use, so you are quite likely to see “small red apples” or “big fat ladies”. When only two adjectives are involved the meaning is usually quite clear, so you can get away without using commas. Sometimes you can even do it with three adjectives. Personal judgement comes into play, and personal judgement is more frequently acceptable in comma usage than in any other form of punctuation.

But back to word order, which is actually even more complex than the above paragraphs suggest. What if we have several adjectives of the same kind? How do we decide what order to put them in? Once again, if you have native proficiency in English, you will put them in a certain order automatically.

But what is that order? Well, it goes like this:

For example, a beautiful, enchanting dress.

For example, a cheap, big, hot, fresh, round, brown bun.

Material or intrinsic quality
For example, a Hungarian wooden sailing ship. Note the lack of commas, despite the adjectives all being definitive. Generally, definitive elements in a sentence do not need to be separated by commas. A good rule of thumb is to try placing the word “and” between the words. If it doesn’t make sense with “and”, you don’t need commas. So while you might write “a beautiful and enchanting dress”, you certainly would not write “a Hungarian and wooden and sailing ship”, would you?

And that’s probably enough on commas and adjectives for one post. I’ll blog on other aspects of commas usage another time. In fact, I could probably go on for years, but panic not – I won’t!

*Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, Sixth edition, ©Commonwealth of Australia, 2002. This is the manual upon which most major publishers, government bodies, educational institutions, NGOs and businesses in Australia base their style sheets. Some small presses, for some reason, use the Chicago Manual of Style. I have no idea why.


  1. Which just goes to show, the tiniest little thing can be complicated in its uses. And, as you point out, usage varies over time too.

  2. I used to fight with my secretary (in ancient times, when we still had them) over the use of the Oxford comma. She was quite often annoyed with my edits, and grew increasingly disenchanted (disenfranchised?) with me as her supervisor. Let's leave aside for now, what happened when I decided the files needed reorganization, hhahahahaah.
    Well done, Satima.

  3. Just saying thanks will not just be adequate, for the great lucidity in your writing. I will directly grab your rss feed to stay abreast of any updates.