Commas 101: The Hierarchy of Adjectives

Does your string of adjectives need a comma? Most likely not. How do you know?

You only need commas with your adjectives if they are coordinate. Coordinate adjectives are exchangeable and need commas between them, where non-coordinate adjectives follow a particular hierarchy and do not need commas.

To determine whether an adjective is coordinate, try the two-question test:

  1. If you put the word “and” between the adjectives, will the sentence still make sense?
  2. If you swap the adjectives, will the sentence still make sense?

If the answer is yes to BOTH of these questions, then you need a comma.

So, what is this hierarchy thing?

Adjectives have a hierarchy in which they must be listed both for clarity and, frankly, because they sound better (keep in mind, we are talking US English, things change in other languages!).

For instance, read the following out loud:

That is a metal red giant barn.

Ick. It doesn’t quite sound right, does it? You want to rearrange the words so it reads, “That is a giant red metal barn.” Much better.

Now that we know what order they sound best in, why do we care? Because, the order also helps us determine where commas should go – if they should go at all!

If you have several adjectives, once you get them arranged in order, you ONLY need commas between those adjectives in the same column.

A lovely blue whooping crane needs no commas.

A lovely blue, green, and gray whooping crane would, but only between the colors.

Let’s try out two-question test on these two:

A and lovely and blue whooping crane.

Ick. Well, maybe between the lovely and blue. So, let’s try that:

A lovely and blue whooping crane.

Sort of. Let’s try test two:

A blue and lovely whooping crane.

No, it doesn’t really make sense. We don’t need commas.

Now you try the lovely blue, green, and gray whooping crane on your own. Are those commas needed or not?

(We’ll debate the Oxford comma on another post.)

Mélanie Hope is a professional speaker, author, and coach who travels the world teaching greater communication skills while making as many people laugh as possible.

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