When to Use Commas Between Adjectives

This question comes up often in my editing: should or shouldn’t there be commas between adjectives in a string? I hate to tell you this but … it depends.

Yeah, I know, English is complicated. That’s why I’m here. I swear, we don’t make up these rules just to keep copyeditors in business.

Adjectives are descriptive words; they modify nouns. Adjectives fall in different categories, and these categories go in a particular sequence, otherwise they will not sound right to the ears of native speakers. Look in different places and you’ll find different lists, but generally the sequence goes like this:

Quantitythree, a few, many
Opinionbeautiful, extravagant, ordinary
Sizeminuscule, midsize, ginormous
Ageancient, new, nineteenth-century
Shaperound, square, trapezoidal
Colorred, green, blue
OriginAsian, French, Southern
Materialwool, wood, gold
Qualifiercollapsible, cooking, afternoon

So you may have a small purple hat (size color noun), but you would not write purple small hat (color size noun), because that would be out of order. Note there are no commas in that phrase. That’s because these adjectives are cumulative; each ads to the one before. Commas are not used between cumulative adjectives.

Woman in a purple dress and a ginormous purple hat that's shaped like a flower
by konradbak via depositphotos

Where confusion arises is when you have to decide whether the adjectives are cumulative or coordinate. Coordinate adjectives usually come from one category, like opinion: A charming, extravagant afternoon tea (opinion, opinion, qualifier, noun). A comma goes between the two coordinate adjectives, but not between them and the non-coordinate qualifier adjective afternoon.

In The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan Garner writes “The most useful test is this: if and would fit between the two adjectives, a comma is necessary” (CMS 17. 5.91), e.g., a charming and extravagant afternoon tea but not a small and purple hat.

If your eyes are glazing over at all this coordinate versus cumulative talk, you are probably not alone. Here’s a simpler way to think about it. If the adjectives come from one category, e.g, they are all opinion or observational, they need commas. If they come from different categories, they do not. So one ugly large old brown English straw garden hat takes no commas, but one ugly, cheap, garish hat does.

I should also take this opportunity to note that more than three adjectives is, as you can see above, a dangerous pileup and therefore is Not Recommended. If you want to describe something in more than three ways, spread those descriptions out over multiple instances. For example, a hat could be described as a small purple wool hat in one place and as a charming antique Watteau in another.

Sometimes people differ on whether and is idiomatic in a given phrase. While I would not insert a comma into the phrase tall thin man, there are those who argue that you could say a tall and thin man, therefore you could write tall, thin man.

For further clarification, we can turn to Chicago’s Chapter 6, “Punctuation,” in which the editors write that if “the adjectives are not coordinate…no commas are used,” e.g., small purple hat. The test to determine whether adjectives are coordinate is whether their order can be changed. In my view, thin tall man contradicts the order of adjectives (putting shape before size), making these adjectives not coordinate, but cumulative; therefore we may omit the commas.

However if tall and thin are both taken as shape words, then the comma would be appropriate. Where there is uncertainty about the category of an adjective, I recommend reading the sentence aloud to see if it’s idiomatic. I don’t believe He was a thin and tall man passes this test, so I would make it He was a tall thin man, but if an author disagreed I would not fight them on it. In gray areas, authors may be allowed their own voice.

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