Time to attempt to master another comma position in line editing: between adjectives. When using adjectives to describe a noun in sentences, at times you will need commas between them, at times you will not, and at times there will be commas between some of them but not others. Unlike with the intuitive comma use, often you can’t tell when a comma should or shouldn’t be used just by reading the sentence out loud. Fortunately, however, there is a rule you can use.
When using two or more adjectives, commas should be placed between those that describe the noun independently and separately. No comma is appropriate when the multiple adjectives are dependent upon each other. Diana Hacker (2009) in her A Pocket Style Manual refers to the distinction as coordinating adjectives and cumulative adjectives (p. 59-60). To test whether the adjectives are coordinate or independent, read them with the word “and” between them.
For example, from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters on page 13:
“I did not think again about the letter until I arrived home from school the first of March to find a thin envelope with a border around the outside like a red, white, and blue candy cane and several canceled stamps addressed to me on our kitchen counter.”
If you use “and” instead of the commas:
“I did not think again about the letter until I arrived home from school the first of March to find a thin envelope with a border around the outside like a red and white and blue candy cane and several canceled stamps addressed to me on our kitchen counter.”
This makes sense so the commas are appropriate. In fact, commas are needed so your words don’t read like they were written by a preschooler. In this case, you could also determine the commas are needed by reading it aloud. If you try to read it without, “outside like a red white blue candy cane,” you might pass out from loss of breath (especially because it is quite a long sentence anyway).
According to Hacker (2009), cumulative adjectives don’t describe the noun separately and reading them with “and” would be cumbersome and nonsensical. For example, from Missing Emily on page 12:
“A passing elbow collided with mine, sending my books flying to the floor in slow motion.”
Reading “A passing and elbow collided with mine” doesn’t make sense so a comma would not be appropriate. As has been the case with all of the Comma Sutra positions thus far, whether to use a comma or not is still a subjective decision to a certain degree. The “and”s might make sense to some but not to others. The important thing is to consider the use of commas in your sentences and make purposeful choices about whether or not to use them.
Hacker, D. (2009). A Pocket Style Manual (5th ed.). Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.