Commas with Pairs of Adjectives


Age, color, shape, material, and nationality are never coordinate.

We adapted this blog post from one of our answers on Yahoo! Answers. The asker asked a common question about whether or not to put a comma between adjectives. 

Question:
Is this comma needed: “I’m a 46-year-old, married woman living in the suburbs”? 

Answer:
The short answer is “No.” 

Now, here is the long answer. 

You have two adjectives describing woman: 46-year-old and married. We have to figure out whether or not these are coordinate adjectives. If they are, then we use a comma, but if they aren’t, then we don’t use a comma. 

Coordinate adjectives are two or more adjectives that describe the same noun. When you have two or more adjectives together, we apply this test to see if they are coordinate.
1. Can we put and between them without changing the meaning?
2. Can we reverse their order without changing the meaning?
If the adjectives pass this test, they are coordinate and should be separated by a comma. 

For example, consider this sentence:
“The dry, dusty road stretched endlessly.” Here, we examine the pair of adjectives dry and dusty.
1. Can we put and between them without changing the meaning? Yes.
2. Can we reverse their order without changing the meaning? Yes.
This makes them coordinate adjectives, and the comma is necessary. 

Now let’s look at your sentence and apply the same 2-part test.
1. Can we put and between them without changing the meaning? Yes.
2. Can we reverse their order without changing the meaning? No.

Your example fails the test for coordinate adjectives. 46-year-old and married are NOT coordinate adjectives. Because these are not coordinate adjectives, you don’t use a comma. 

Some adjectives are never coordinate, whether they are in the first or second position. They include the adjectives for the following characteristics.

  • age (such as 46-year-old)
  • color
  • shape
  • material
  • nationality 

More information about coordinate adjectives: See days 167 and 173 in 300 Days of Better Writing.


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3 Comments

Filed under Editing, Writing

3 responses to “Commas with Pairs of Adjectives

  1. PATRICIA

    I would like to pursue the “your sentence” portion of the above answer. Using your rules 1 and 2, as shown below.

    1. Can we put *and* between them without changing the meaning? No — not unless you do some tweaking. I am a 46 year old woman, married and living …..

    2. Can we reverse their order without changing the meaning? Yes we can. I am a married 46-year old woman living…. This does not change the meaning of the sentence; would dropping the comma here be okay?

    *******************

    Also, what exactly consitutes “changing the meaning” of a sentence? My tweak of example #1 is a rewording but does not change the meaning of the sentence.
    ********************

    Must both conditions be met — the “and” and the reversible order to dictate using/not using the comma?

    thank you Patricia

    1. Can we put and between them without changing the meaning? Yes.
    2. Can we reverse their order without changing the meaning? No.

    Your example fails the test for coordinate adjectives. 46-year-old and married are NOT coordinate adjectives. Because these are not coordinate adjectives, you don’t use a comma

  2. Yes, both conditions.

    If you “tweak” the sentence, you have a different sentence and the same issues may not arise.

    Thanks for your input on this topic. I hope you’ll comment on other posts.

  3. Matt

    I’m confused: how does switching the order of “married” and “46-year-old” change the meaning that the person is married and 46 years of age? If a person is x and y and you move them to y and x, the person is still those things – neither the sentence nor the person’s “meaning” has changed.

    Could you clarify your example?

    (For some reason, I intrinsically feel that “married, 46-year-old woman” and “46-year-old married woman” are correct – one needs a comma and one doesn’t. I don’t know why I feel this, though.)

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