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When are "and" and commas used in a list of adjectives? For example,

  1. Poor little rich girl, or
  2. Poor, little and rich girl (or Poor, little, and rich girl)?
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poor little rich girl is effectively a "set phrase" which was around before it became the title of books and films. Voting to close because it's not a useful example of a "generic" list of adjectives. Which in any case I'm sure will have been asked about before on ELU. – FumbleFingers Feb 27 '12 at 16:44
You put commas between adjectives of "equal weight" in the adjective order. Unfortunately, this order is somewhat ill-defined, but I suspect the question of exactly where to put commas is even less well-defined. See this EL&U question. – Peter Shor Feb 27 '12 at 19:36
up vote 2 down vote accepted

As was stated in a comment, this is a poor example for punctuation usage. The familiar term "poor little rich girl" is oxymoronic, in that "poor" and "rich" have opposite meanings. Perhaps she's poor in spirit, because her wealth has made her lonely. It's a tongue-in-cheek expression.

The Poor Little Rich Girl was a play that was written in 1913; it has been adapted for film at least three times, once as a Shirley Temple film in 1936.

If you really want to address comma usage, we should change the example. A general comma rule is, "Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series."

So, we might say:

  • Helga is intelligent, charming, and witty.
  • Linda is a lonely, diminutive, wealthy girl.
  • Poor, hungry, young Jessica was given a dish of rich pudding.

Following the comma usage rule, commas are used to separate the list of adjectives that describe Helga, Linda, and Jessica.

But the more familiar "poor little rich girl" could be used a standalone saying, where the commas would be omitted:

Danielle: I just got this manicure yesterday, and I've already chipped a nail!

Dan: Oh, you poor little rich girl!

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You're right, it was a poor example as it is oxymoronic phrase. How about your first example, "intelligent, charming, and witty girl" vs "intelligent charming witty girl" instead? Your second and third examples imply that commas are present but not "and". – Gnubie Mar 1 '12 at 13:38
"When there are more than two items in a list, they should be separated using commas." For more on proper comma usage, simply Google use of commas in a list. – J.R. Mar 1 '12 at 14:55

Poor little rich girl is definitely one girl, one person, while poor, little and rich girl may be 3 persons, but also may be only one. This is therefore ambiguous.

As for the comma before and that's called a serial comma and Wikipedia has an amazing article explaining everything you need to know about it.

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Thanks, but I can't see how poor, little and rich girl can imply 3 persons. – Gnubie Feb 27 '12 at 13:41
@Gnubie: I didn't know either, until my father, my mother and my brother told me they are 3 persons. – RiMMER Feb 27 '12 at 13:44
+1 you ace that question mate. @Gnubie maybe you haven't heard for the bad, the good and the ugly :D – speedyGonzales Feb 27 '12 at 13:55
I'm with @Gnubie . There's only one girl in the expression. It's not the poor, the little, and the rich (indefinite number), nor the poor little rich girls. – choster Feb 27 '12 at 14:04
Are your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses yearning to breathe free three different groups? :) – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Feb 27 '12 at 19:30

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