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I've heard many people say "big black eyes," and I'm curious whether or not we must put an and in-between big and black.

To me, since big and black are describing eyes, it is necessary to put an and between the two. Is it just a careless mistake?

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  • Please have a look at out sister site, ELL. And is not necessary between adjectives of the same family, if you will. It is perfectly appropriate (and acceptable) to say, I'd like three large white Italian silk pill-box* hats. Aug 10, 2014 at 7:39
  • Not relevant to your question, but be careful when saying "black eyes". It can mean that the irises are are black (parallel to "blue eyes" or "green eyes"), but is more likely to be understood as meaning that the area around the eye is badly bruised (technically a periorbital hematoma), typically from a beating. Aug 10, 2014 at 9:58

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The "and" is not wrong, but it is much less common than commas, except when the adjectives all come from a fixed expression like "salt-and-pepper hair" or "a fat, dumb, and happy audience".

Other than that, it's mostly used for euphony:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
-- William Blake

Blake certainly could have written "green, pleasant land", but it would have sounded too prosaic. Compare:

Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.
-- Rudyard Kipling

Note the lack of a comma after "great"; since it cannot go anywhere else in the list, it is considered not part of the list at all and no comma. Since "grey" and "green" are acting in combination, they are hyphenated. The proper name Limpopo is technically an adjective, but by the previous rule, still no comma.

If you are repeating an adjective for emphasis, never use "and":

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
-- Dickens

"Far and far better thing" would be very, very wrong.

Medica uses the example large white Italian silk pill-box to illustrate what she calls "families". (I assume she means a pill-box that is silk and is Italian; if the box were made of or for Italian silk, you should write "Italian-silk box".)

You can write "a large and white box", although I doubt a native speaker would, but writing "a large and Italian box" is wrong. The degree of difference between the words needed for this rule to kick in is vague: "large and Italian", wrong; "large and heavy", no problem (large and heavy both describe physical attributes); "large and white", eh a little unidiomatic.

What [punishment] will you get? Uh, a ... large and painful hickey.
-- Woody Allen

The mention of nationalities reminds me. If two adjectives describe different members of a collective noun, you use "and", so you write "a German and Irish crowd" if the people in the crowd came from those two countries.

By contrast, if two adjectives describe different parts of a single object, you use "and" with hyphens. So, "a black-and-white photograph", "a ham-and-eggs breakfast", "stop-and-go traffic".

Putting these last two rules together, we see "a German and Irish family" would feature members from Germany and Ireland, but in a "a German-Irish family", every member of the family would have ancestors from there.

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    Just fyi - a pill-box hat is a style of hat, not a kind of box. Jackie Kennedy wore them in the 60's; Kate Middleton is wearing them now. Aug 10, 2014 at 10:47
  • Ah, I remember that hat. Ridiculous, it had the convenience of a top hat, while offering the protection of a yarmulke. And since Italian modifies silk, you need the hyphen: "Italian-silk pill-box hat". Aug 10, 2014 at 11:05
  • That's the one, alright. I do disagree on the hyphen between Italian and silk, though. Aug 10, 2014 at 11:08
  • @medica -- you can disagree, but I'm right :) An "Italian silk hat" would be a silk hat that came from Italy. An "Italian-silk hat" would be a hat made of silk that came from Italy. Aug 10, 2014 at 19:31
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    If the sentence omits both the and and the comma, the listener will interpret the adjectives as "cumulative" rather than "coordinate". "Big, black eyes" are eyes that are big and black; "big black eyes" are black eyes (i.e., periorbital hematomae, the injury) that are big. Pretty Russian girls are said to have big, black eyes; unsuccessful boxers have big black eyes. Aug 12, 2014 at 0:51
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The 'and' can be substituted for a comma. For example 'big, black eyes'. It follows the rule for writing lists separated by commas where the last item has an 'and'. For example "I need bread, milk, butter and eggs". Overall 'big and black eyes' sounds unwieldy but isn't strictly wrong.

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    It is utterly 100% normal to say something like "a big and tall man" or "she has big and blue eyes" or "a bright and early morning". Benjamin is 100% correct and the two people who downvoted needs to click to reverse. Medica, if you're a non-native speaker what's probably confusing you is simply that "big black eyes" is a common scan, but if you thinkg about it "bright and early morning" or "big and tall man" are also common scans. (Note too that in written form, 'big, black eyes' with a comma is also utterly normal.)
    – Fattie
    Aug 10, 2014 at 8:33
  • It's hard to believe the QA at hand is about the specific phrase "big, blue eyes", but rather about the issue "when do you use commas, and, or nothing" in such a list. (Is the question you linked to about that specific phrase?) See Malvolio's encyclopaedic answer for examples of all three. For sure, "big blue eyes" scans more for that one.
    – Fattie
    Aug 10, 2014 at 12:33
  • It's hard to believe the QA at hand is about the specific phrase "big, blue eyes", but rather about the issue "when do you use commas, and, or nothing" in such a list. (Is the question you linked to about that specific phrase?) See Malvolio's encyclopaedic answer for examples of all three. For sure, "big blue eyes" scans more for that one.
    – Fattie
    Aug 11, 2014 at 6:47
  • No "proof", whatsoever, is possible for claims about what is typical in spoken language - it's just opinion. "It is utterly 100% normal to say something like "a big and tall man" or "she has big and blue eyes" or "a bright and early morning"." I assume you're agreeing that "a big and tall man" , "a bright and early morning" are common phrases.
    – Fattie
    Aug 11, 2014 at 6:48
  • I don't really know what toy say, Medica. "Is the question you linked to about that specific phrase?" You mentioned that specific phrase, but then you linked to a question on the general issue. As I said, it is utterly 100% normal to SAY (using your mouth, spoken) something like .. the three examples I gave. As I've said, what four times, for sure "big, blue eyes" is (as you said) the more usual way you would say that (particular phrase) but you could also say "wow, she has big and blue eyes"
    – Fattie
    Aug 11, 2014 at 10:41
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The actual answer to your question is, no, you do not have to put in the and.

All three possibilities are common: ands, commas, or nothing at all.

You can see any number of commonplace examples of all three.

As many mentioned, this is a many-times duplicated question, so just search around.

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  • I have read all the links people provided for this question, but I am still confused. If "big" and "blue" are cumulative adjectives - they have to remain in a certain order to make sense - then does this mean we cannot put the "and" in between?
    – user59768
    Aug 12, 2014 at 0:01
  • Sure, (1) you can definitely use an "and" in if you want to. (2) there are any number of examples of that usage in the answers. (3) there is no reason at all for them to be in a particular order (4) As Medica pointed out, inthe specific case of "big blue" it is much much more common to say "big, blue" rather than "big and blue". But then it's much much more common to say "big and tall" rather than "big tall".
    – Fattie
    Aug 12, 2014 at 7:40

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