As we do our final copyedit to catch any tiny errors that may have slipped through into the final version of Add Magic to Taste, I (@unforth, the Press’s lead editor) have been reinforcing and formalizing my knowledge of how to use punctuation when dealing with the following sentence structure:
adjective1 adjective2 noun
Whether commas and/or hyphens are needed depends primarily on two factors:
- Is adjective1 modifying adjective2, or are they both modifying the noun?
- Are adjective1 and adjective2 coordinate or cumulative adjectives?
I’m not going to get in-depth on this post about what coordinate and cumulative adjectives are – there’s already some great resources for that, such as this Writing Fundamentals Guide post and this article by Grammar Girl. Covering that as well as the below is too much for one post. Instead, this post will focus on strategies for telling the difference between three cases:
adjective1-adjective2 noun (Case 1)
adjective1, adjective2 noun (Case 2)
adjective1 adjective2 noun (Case 3)
For starters, carefully consider what the meaning of adjective1, adjective2, and noun is when they’re used together. As in, what, specifically, is being described, and what is being established about it? You (as editor or writer!) need to know what you’re actually trying to say before you can make sure it’s written in a grammatically correct way. You also need to keep in mind the context of your story, because that might change your aimed-for meaning (for example, in one story, a box being wooden might be an incidental description, and in another, a box being wooden might be absolutely essential and noteworthy, and that could potentially influence the punctuation).
Once you know what you’re trying to say (“I’m trying to say that the box is wooden and beautiful;” “I’m trying to say that the wooden box is beautiful;” “I’m trying to say that the beautiful box is made of wood;” etc.) analyze your options by taking your three words (adjective1, adjective2, and noun – though note that adjective2 may not look like an adjective – it’s often a noun or verb that’s functioning as an adjective, because it’s modifying the noun) and consider iterations of them as sentences.
- Does adjective1 + noun make sense and, if it does, does it also preserve the essential meaning of adjective1 + adjective2 + noun? Which is to say – is the only difference that, if adjective2 is removed, noun is described a little less, but the meaning is still clear and is what the writer intended? (If yes, see Cases 2 and 3 below; if no, see Case 1 below)
- Are adjective1 and adjective2 in the same or different adjective “categories”? In English, adjectives make the most sense if they’re used in an order determined by the category they fall into – you can read more about that in this Grammarly post. Different sources use different lists of “categories,” and what “order” they go in can vary contextually, but they are essentially: opinion (beautiful, ugly), size (big, thin), age (three-years-old, ancient), condition (worn, new-made), shape (square, cylindrical), color (blue, whitish), origin/nationality/religion (Muslim, London-based), material (wooden, painted), purpose (archival, athletic). If adjective1 and adjective2 are in the same category (large, wide house; slippery, slick spill) then you should most likely refer to Case 2 below; if they’re in different categories (slow rectangular train; beautiful archival paper) you should most likely refer to Case 3 below.)
- Similarly, does adjective2 + noun make sense and, if it does, does it also preserve the essential meaning? (If yes, see Cases 2 and 3 below; if no, see Case 1 below)
- If the sentence is reworded as “adjective1 and adjective2 noun” does it make sense and preserve the intended meaning? (If yes, see Case 2 below; if no, see Cases 1 and 3 below)
- If the sentence is reworded as adjective2 adjective1 noun, does it make sense and preserve the intended meaning? (If yes, see Case 2 below; if no, see Cases 1 and 3 below)
- Visualize your sentence as units – does each word function more-or-less “alone” or do they make most sense when imagined as couples, as in (adjective1 + adjective2) + noun makes the most sense (if yes, see Case 1 below), or adjective1 + (adjective2 + noun) makes the most sense (if yes, see Case 3 below)? (if neither makes more or less sense, see Case 2 below)
- Try plugging your words into following examples – the one that makes sense and preserves meaning is almost certainly the one you want. Option 1: “the noun is adjective1 adjective2” (and doesn’t make sense if a word is put between adjective1 and adjective2, in which case go to Case 1 below). Option 2: “the noun is adjective1 and adjective2” (in which case, go to Case 2 below). Option 3: “the adjective2 noun is adjective1” (in which case, go to Case 3 below). This can be especially helpful for figuring out if you’re dealing with a case where context makes a difference the adjectives cumulative (because, as I said, sometimes “the box is wooden and beautiful,” and “wooden” and “beautiful are equally meaningful – though they’re in different adjective categories – and sometimes, “the wooden box is beautiful” (especially as compared to a different box made of another material) is more what you’re aiming for – and that will affect the punctuation.)
All right – so far, so confusing, right? On to the specifics and examples!
Case 1: adjective1 is modifying adjective2, and combined, they make an adjectival phrase which modifies the noun – in which case, a hyphen is needed between adjective1 and adjective2.
Case 1 Example 1: his blue-green eyes. Explanation: the color of the eyes is a combination of blue and green; if you say “blue eyes” or “green eyes,” neither conveys the same meaning/communicates the same color. Instead, blue and green are combining to BOTH, together, give significant information about the color of his eyes.
Case 1 Example 2: the load-bearing wall. Explanation: “the load wall” and “the bearing wall” and “the load and bearing wall” are all gibberish that in no way preserve the intended meaning. “Load” and “bearing” need to be coupled together and interpreted as a single adjective “unit.”
Case 1 Example 3: the half-eaten muffin. Explanation: once again, consider our bullet list above – “the half muffin” could make sense but doesn’t preserve the intended meaning (for example, it could have been cut in half instead of eaten). “The eaten muffin” sort of makes sense, but again doesn’t preserve the meaning – the muffin is only partially eaten. The “half eaten muffin” is nothing – an “eaten muffin” isn’t a thing – and “the half and eaten muffin” is obviously nothing – and “the eaten half muffin” changes the meaning, implying someone ate all of half a muffin – and there’d need to be a hyphen between half and muffin. Only with a hyphen does the sentence make sense AND convey this specific meaning.
Case 2: adjective1 and adjective2 are both equally modifying the noun, and all of the following sentence re-structuring examples lead to new phrases that make sense and preserve the intended meaning (if…with slightly less descriptive power): “adjective1 noun,” “adjective2 noun,” and “adjective1 and adjective2 noun.” adjective1 and adjective2 are most likely to fit these pattern examples if they’re in the same category, as described above. In this case, adjective1 and adjective2 are functioning as coordinate adjectives, and the correct phrasing will be: adjective1, adjective2 noun -> a comma is needed between adjective1 and adjective2.
Case 2 Example 1: the wide, open field. Explanation: “the wide field” – okay, we know a little less about the field, but it still makes sense. “The open field” – same. “The wide and open field” – it’s a little clunky, but it also makes sense. “The open and wide field” – sounds slightly odd, because in English we like our adjectives in a certain order and if we change that order it makes (especially native speaker’s) eyebrows twitch, but it does function as a sentence. “The field is wide and open” – also makes sense. They’re also arguably in the same category (size). So, these are coordinate adjectives, and a comma is needed between them.
Case 2 Example 2: my pretty, erudite friend. Explanation: “my pretty friend,” “my erudite friend,” “my pretty and erudite friend,” “my erudite and pretty friend,” “my friend is pretty and erudite,” all of these make perfect sense, so – comma! (also – same category – opinion)
Case 2 Example 3: the soft, fuzzy toy. Explanation: I could go over it a million times – why not try it your self? Break it down into adjective1 + noun, adjective2 + noun, adjective1 and adjective2 noun, adjective2 and adjective1 noun, the noun is adjective1 and adjective2…all good, right? Some may niggle at the ear because of English adjective order, but they all essentially work. (and again – category is descriptive opinion – so, same)
Note: As I keep saying, whether something is Case 2 or Case 3 can be contextually dependent. There is no hard-and-fast rule – even the examples above, which I tried to make clear and straightforward (the clear, straightforward examples?) could arguably have no comma, depending on context. This is “indefinite” enough, often, that no one is gonna come down on you if you don’t do it right; if you’re really not sure, it’s probably better to err on the side of “no comma,” Case 3. But, you can also keep in mind that the “weirder,” “clunkier,” “awkwarder,” “more stilted” a sentence sounds when you put “and” between the adjectives, the more likely we are to need Case 3. And also, even with context, it’s usually best to use Case 3 if the adjectives are in different categories.
Case 3: adjective2 is directly modifying noun, and adjective1 makes most sense considered as describing the “unit” made of “adjective2 noun.” “adjective2 noun” still makes clear sense, but “adjective1 noun” is missing essential meaning that contextualizes the information being presented. “adjective1 and adjective2 noun” reads like gibberish, and “adjective2 adjective1 noun” similarly makes no sense. In this case, the adjectives are cumulative, and they should not get a comma between them.
Case 3 Example 1: the elderly American tourist. Explanation: “the elderly and American tourist” does vaguely make sense, but it loses essential meaning – we’re not describing the tourist, we’re describing the American tourist. Whether “American” is critical information will depend, somewhat, on context, but try changing the order – “the American elderly tourist” reads as wrong almost always – unless we’re dealing with a case where there’s a whole hoard of elderly tourists and we specifically mean the American one. From a category standpoint, they’re also clearly in different categories – elderly is about age/description, American nationality. Thus, no comma should be used.
Case 3 Example 2: the wide road shoulder. Explanation: this one is more clear-cut than the previous, because essential meaning is lost when the order is changed or the middle word (which, yes, is a noun, but it’s modifying/altering the meaning of shoulder) – without “road” there, “shoulder” means something completely different. “Road shoulder” makes sense alone, but “the road wide shoulder” is nonsense, as is “the wide and road shoulder.” And, different categories – wide is size, whereas road describes purpose.
Case 3 Example 3: your orange knit sweater. Explanation: again, this is about establishing a category (the “knit sweater”) that is then being described as orange. While, yes, “orange sweater” makes sense and could arguably cause this to fall into Case 2, “the knit orange sweater” reads oddly (again, unless we’re differentiating one orange sweater from the others), as does “the orange and knit sweater.” Further, for categories – color and material/means of making are again, clearly different, and so this is an instance where adjectives in different categories pile, and the entire unit of “knit sweater” is what is being described by “orange.”
I know it’s hard. Especially for non-native speakers, who may not have the exposure to the language to know “by ear” what “sounds weird,” it can be hard to recognize the subtle differences. Sadly, this is an instance of grammar where “it just sounds right that way” is often a good way (especially for a native speaker) to gauge which Case is right. But, in general, if adjective2 + noun make a unit that would clearly distinguish noun from other forms of noun (the American tourist, the knit sweater, the peaked roof, etc.) then you probably want Case 3 and shouldn’t use a comma.
In the end, there’s no simple rules for this. It’s complex, and there are tons of exceptions to the “rules,” and even if you’re super careful, some of these kinds of cases will likely slip through. Further, even if you do your best, and go with the most “technically correct” approach, you’ll end up with things that look weird (“the bright-blue bird” is the most technically correct way to write it – bright is definitely modifying the color blue – but no one would actually write it this way because it reads “weird.” Like, yes, the bird is not bright, which means the hyphen is “necessary” but…it’s not actually.) So – consider what you mean, and what reads smoothly, and what you see other people doing, and do your best.
On the plus side – if you’re an experienced writer/editor/reader, and you’ve read all this and you’re still confused, your readers are in the same boat as you – hardly anyone who reads your edited work will know these rules well enough to even notice that you might have gotten one or two wrong.
So, don’t stress about it much – this is definitely on the most pedantic end of technical copyediting grammar shenanigans – but hey, now you know!
Now, go write some words!
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