Commas With Adjectives Before Nouns

One of the trickier comma rules involves separating adjectives when they come before nouns. It's tricky because only some adjectives in some situations require commas, while others do not. It depends on the relationship between the consecutive adjectives and the noun.

These examples are correct with the comma:

  • Thank you for your helpful, detailed report.
  • His elegant, new car gives him lots of pleasure.
  • This cumbersome, archaic rule drives me crazy.

The following examples are correct without a comma:

  • Thank you for your helpful monthly report.
  • His elegant company car gives him lots of pleasure.
  • This cumbersome punctuation rule drives me crazy.

The sentences are very similar, aren't they? But their need for a comma differs.

Consecutive adjectives before a noun need a comma between them when they are "equal," that is, when they modify the noun equally. In the sentence "He is an esteemed elder statesman," elder is more closely related, more integral, to statesman than esteemed is. Therefore, the adjectives are not considered equal and do not need a comma to separate them. Similarly, in the sentence "Two eager applicants phoned," eager is more closely tied to applicants than two is. The adjectives are not equal and do not need a comma.

Here are several tests to recognize equal adjectives:

1. Insert and between them. If the sentence still flows smoothly and makes sense, the comma is correct. 

  • Thank you for your helpful and detailed report. (Flows smoothly and makes sense. Needs the comma when and is omitted.)
  • Thank you for your helpful and monthly report. (Does not make sense because it sounds like two reports. The adjectives are not equal and do not need a comma when and is omitted.

2. Change the order of the adjectives. If the sentence flows smoothly and makes sense, the comma is correct.

  • His new, elegant car gives him lots of pleasure. (Flows smoothly and makes sense. Needs the comma.)
  • His company, elegant car gives him lots of pleasure. (Does not make sense. The adjectives are not equal and do not need a comma when reversed to "elegant company car.")

3. Insert and between the adjectives and put them after the noun. If the sentence flows smoothly and makes sense, the comma is correct.

  • This rule, which is cumbersome and archaic, drives me crazy. (Passes the test; the adjectives are equal and need a comma.)
  • This rule, which is cumbersome and punctuation, drives me crazy. (Fails the test; the adjectives are not equal and need no comma.)

I offer the three tests to recognize equal adjectives that require commas, because sometimes just one test may be inconclusive. Sometimes the sentence passes one test but fails another. For example, try the tests on this sentence and decide whether it needs a comma between next and challenging.

  • My next challenging assignment sends me to Portland, Oregon.

Here are the sentences that result from the three tests:

  1. My next and challenging assignment sends me to Portland, Oregon.
  2. My challenging next assignment sends me to Portland, Oregon.
  3. My assignment, which is next and challenging, sends me to Portland, Oregon.

Are the adjectives equal, requiring a comma between them? We know they are not because Tests 1 and 3, with "next and challenging," do not flow smoothly or make complete sense. Nevertheless, the sentence passed Test 2, which did not reveal the adjectives as unequal. If the sentence fails any one of the three tests, I suggest leaving the comma out.

Tricky, huh?

Take this quiz to see whether you have mastered the use of commas to separate adjectives before a noun. Insert commas where necessary. I have italicized the consecutive adjectives to help you focus on the comma rule in question.

  1. Dale is the third new employee to request training in business writing.
  2. Her exciting high-paying job has changed her life.
  3. He still drives the old blue Oldsmobile.
  4. One full day of training is torture for this fast-moving young group.
  5. I prefer an efficient comfortable train ride to Vancouver over a tense tedious trip by car.
  6. Increasing fuel bills are cutting into many family budgets.
  7. This practical lively article is a good example of his writing ability.
  8. All prepaid bridal parties receive a 10 percent discount. 
  9. Your strong written communication skills will serve you well.
  10. His sarcastic dark sense of humor is getting in the way of his work relationships.
  11. We need a challenging proofreading test to give to applicants for the new editing job.
  12. After a refreshing much needed 10-minute break, we rejoined the meeting.

Note: My Microsoft grammar and spelling checker flagged none of the sentences as needing commas!

I tried the three tests on the 12 items, with the results below. Do you agree?

  1. No comma.
  2. Her exciting, high-paying job has changed her life.
  3. No comma.
  4. One full day of training is torture for this fast-moving, young group. (I debated on the comma before young, but I decided in its favor.)
  5. I prefer an efficient, comfortable train ride to Vancouver over a tense, tedious trip by car.
  6. No commas.
  7. This practical, lively article is a good example of his writing ability.
  8. No commas.
  9. No commas.
  10. His sarcastic, dark sense of humor is getting in the way of his work relationships.
  11. No commas.
  12. After a refreshing, much needed 10-minute break, we rejoined the meeting.

Did you ace the test? I welcome your comments.

Lynn
Syntax Training

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Lynn. I was just wondering recently about how to handle consecutive adjectives. Now I can refer to this and be correct in my writing. In my first sentence, is there supposed to be a comma between you and Lynn?

  2. Hi, Paula. I am happy to be helpful.

    Yes, you need a comma between “you” and “Lynn.” The reason is direct address. When you address the reader, you need one or more commas to set off the reader’s name. This rule has become blurred because of the popular “Hi Paula” and “Hello Paula,” which traditionally had commas. (I still use them.)

    Thanks for stoppping by. I hope things are going well at Sign-A-Rama Vermont.

    Lynn

  3. Thanks for this post, Lynn! I have always wondered exactly why some phrases like this needed commas and some did not. This is a helpful explanation.

    Can I ask you to provide your reasoning for the answer to question #3 in the quiz? I had thought that a comma would have been necessary between “old” and “blue.”

  4. Hi, Lisa Marie. Thanks for the question. I made my decision on how the sentences sound.

    For Test 1, “He still drives the old and blue Oldsmobile” does not flow, in my opinion. It’s not the way we speak about cars.

    For Test 2, “He still drives the blue old Oldsmobile” does not sound right either.

    For Test 3, “He still drives the Oldsmobile, which is old and blue,” also doesn’t sound right to me.

    Beyond the tests, I believe the Oldsmobile has always been blue and has become old. Therefore, “blue” and “old” are not equal.

    Does this explanation make sense? I realize it is based on ear, so there is room for us to have different views.

    Lynn

  5. Thanks for answering my question, Lynn. Your explanation about how the Oldsmobile has always been blue but has *become* old over time was very helpful to me. Now I understand why they’re not equal and would therefore not need the comma.

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