Grammar Commas with Adjectives |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Commas with Adjectives

In this lesson, we’ll examine a more advanced concept for using the comma.

Rule: Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the adjectives are interchangeable.

Examples:
He is a strong, healthy man.
We could also say a healthy, strong man.

We stayed at an expensive summer resort.
We would not say summer expensive resort, so no comma.

NOTE: Words ending in -ly are not always adverbs. Many adjectives also end in -ly (e.g., lonely, friendly, kindly (may be an adverb or an adjective), family (may be a noun or an adjective). To test whether an -ly word is an adjective, see if it can be used alone with the noun.

Examples:
Felix was a lonely, confused boy. (Lonely is an adjective because it can be used alone with boy.)
I get headaches in brightly lit rooms. (Brightly is not an adjective because it cannot be used alone with rooms; therefore, no comma is used between brightly and lit.)

Pop Quiz
Choose the sentence with the correct punctuation. Answers are at the bottom.

1A. Juanita has grown up to be a lovely, intelligent woman.
1B. Juanita has grown up to be a lovely intelligent woman.

2A. Be careful before walking on the hot, sharp lava.
2B. Be careful before walking on the hot sharp lava.

3A. That was a wonderfully, delicious dinner we had last night.
3B. That was a wonderfully delicious dinner we had last night.

4A. Edward seems very proud of his bright, red car.
4B. Edward seems very proud of his bright red car.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1A. Juanita has grown up to be a lovely, intelligent woman.
2A. Be careful before walking on the hot, sharp lava.
3B. That was a wonderfully delicious dinner we had last night.
4B. Edward seems very proud of his bright red car.

 

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

6 responses to “Commas with Adjectives”

  1. CW says:

    We could also say healthy, strong man.

    Would this be a healthy and strong man or a healthy ‚Äústrong man”?

  2. Taylor S says:

    Is this correct?
    I was born on a chilly, Tuesday afternoon.
    Or should I leave out the comma? I feel as if Tuesday might be an adjective in this case as it helps describe the afternoon. If that is the case, I know that when using more than one adjective you need to put a comma between them. For example: He rode the big, yellow bus.
    My gut says it should not have a comma. Thank you for your time!

    • As per the rule above and our Rule 2 of Commas, “Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the order of the adjectives is interchangeable.” The order in your examples is not interchangeable. You would not write “Tuesday chilly afternoon” or “yellow big bus.” Therefore, no comma is necessary in either case.

  3. Johan de Smidt says:

    I have encountered a disagreement about the use of commas between adjectives at Business Day, the South African newspaper at which I work. There seems to be an issue about the use of the comma to distinguish between an adjective qualifying another adjective, or a noun that both are qualifying. The rule I have learnt is that if an adjective qualifies the next adjective, no comma is required. If an adjective does not qualify the next adjective, but rather the noun that both qualify, a comma is needed. To write a company made a record R9bn profit, thus means it has previously made a R9bn profit that was not a record, which could elicit some wry smiles, it being unlikely, or impossible. The adjective “record” qualifies the next adjective, ie “R9bn.” To write a company made a record, R9bn profit, means the company made a profit of R9bn for the first time that is a record. The comma changes the meaning of the phrase, in that “record” then does not qualify the next adjective, ie “R9m,” but qualifies the noun. This would make sense. It would be great to get your opinion.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Determining when successive adjectives need to be separated by commas for grammatical accuracy is a common question (e.g., is it “the tall young man” or “the tall, young man”?).

      If we understand correctly, “R9bn” stands for “R9-billion.” If we were to expand the phrase, we would have “record R9-billion profit.”

      As you state, the phrase “record R9bn profit” appears to mean an R9bn profit that set a record. Both “record” and “R9bn” modify “profit.” Without seeing the greater context for reference, we also understand that a company referring to its achievement of a “record R9bn profit” would be suggesting that it had before made an R9bn profit that was not a record, which is implausible.

      If the phrase is written “record, R9bn profit,” one way we’ll look to interpret usage in American English is to exchange the word “and” for the comma and see if it is still plausible: “the company made a record and R9bn profit.” If that is accurate in meaning, the comma between the descriptive words would often be correct.

      Another test is to determine if the adjectives are interchangeable. Can you reorder the phrase to an “R9bn, record profit”? If so, the comma would be correct punctuation. If not, the comma would be incorrect.

      To further your study, you also can refer to our Rules for Commas (please note these rules apply to American English and may differ from English use in South Africa).

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