The Grammarphobia Blog

When commas are uncommon

Q: I give up. How can I tell when to drop the commas in a string of adjectives before a noun?

A: The key here is the kinds of adjectives you’re combining and whether their order makes any difference. Here’s what you need to know.

  • If you can put “and” between the adjectives and make sense, use commas: “Daisy is a healthy, happy, outgoing puppy.” (It would be wordy, but you could say “healthy and happy and outgoing puppy.”)
  • If you can’t use “and” between the adjectives, drop the commas: “Daisy’s favorite toy is a big old blue velvet rabbit.” (You wouldn’t say “big and old and blue and velvet rabbit.”)
  • If the adjectives always occur in a certain order don’t use commas. “Her favorite playmates are two elderly black poodles that live down the block.” (You wouldn’t say “black elderly two poodles.”)

Some adjectives appear in a certain order when combined with dissimilar ones. These include adjectives for number (“two,” “three”), size (“little,” “tall”), age (“young,” “new”), color (“black,” “red”), and composition (“brick,” “leather”).

These adjectives always appear in a particular order. This explains why someone wears a “perfect little black dress,” not a “black little perfect dress,” as we wrote in 2010.

Here’s a parting sentence. It’s a mouthful, but we don’t feel a need to pause between adjectives when reading it aloud. And we didn’t feel a need for commas between adjectives when writing it.

“An overactive young terrier wearing a shiny new pink leather collar came out of an impressive red brick building and walked to the refurbished off-leash dog park to play with three aging French bulldogs in stunning white wool sweaters.”

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