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I have been reading on ordering of multiple adjectives. I understand that when there are multiple adjectives they are usually arranged in a certain order (opinion, size, quantity, etc.). For example:

  • It's a big, black, plastic handle.

But there are two things I am confused about. Do the multiple adjectives need to be punctuated with commas or can the commas be omitted or it does not matter? Take the following two sentences:

  • It's a big, black, plastic handle.
  • It's a big black plastic handle.

Is one of them correct and the other incorrect? Or are both correct? Also what happens when there are only two adjectives?

  • It's a big, black handle.
  • It's a big black handle.
  • It's a big and black handle.

Which of these are correct? Or all of them correct?

So to summarize I have two related questions:

  1. When there are three or more adjectives next to each other, do we need to separate them by commas?
  2. When there are exactly two adjectives next to each other, do we need to separate them by commas or by the conjunction "and" or nothing?
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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2023 at 17:04

3 Answers 3

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It should always be remembered that commas in English are a matter of style. Let me restate that: It should always be remembered that commas, in English, are a matter of style.

Sometimes that style clarifies a sentence; sometimes it is just window-dressing; and sometimes it downright gets in the way.

Consider James Joyce's omission of commas from a string of adjectives in this passage from his story "Counterparts" in Dubliners:

The men asked him to give his version of it, and he did so with great vivacity for the sight of five small hot whiskies was very exhilarating.

Does this cause any confusion? I think we can agree it does not. There were five whiskies on the bar; they were small, and they were hot.

Generally speaking, a list of adjectives is normally separated by commas:

Our Earth is a small, spinning, watery, blue planet.

Note, however, that in the above sentence the last comma seems superfluous, almost out of place. We could easily write the sentence thus:

Our earth is a small, spinning, watery blue planet.

Now, if James Joyce had chosen to write the sentence, perhaps he would have dropped the commas altogether:

Our earth is a small spinning watery blue planet.

Perhaps that looks strange, but can you say that it is any less clear than the others?

But what about rules?

This still doesn't help us, though, in formal writing, especially in academic situations. Your teacher or professor may be a fussbudget who will mark you off for writing the Joycean sentence above. So it is good to understand that there are two kinds of adjectives we use when stacking them: coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. Here is one reference from the English Grammar 101 website:

Definition: Coordinate adjectives modify nouns in similar ways. They describe similar features. Most coordinate adjectives are adjectives of opinion or evaluation. Commas must be used between coordinate adjectives.

That frightening, monstrous creature under the bridge is a troll.

Definition: Cumulative adjectives build upon each other and must be in a certain order. They are equally important and give different types of information. Do not use commas between cumulative adjectives.

Two tall pillars were used to form the entrance to Stonehenge.

This is why we can write the following without commas:

From her pocket she produced a small yellow poker chip and placed it on the table.

Were we to use commas it would make the sentence cumbersome:

From her pocket she produced a small, yellow, poker chip and placed it on the table.

Note too that the noun here is compound. We are not talking about a plain chip, we are talking about a poker chip.

I hope you can see now that it is irrelevant whether there are two or three adjectives. You have to determine what kind of adjectives they are to discover whether to use commas. (As others have noted, never put a comma between the final adjective in a list and the noun being modified.)

  • It was a bright, sunny, day. [Wrong!]
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  • Well, I think that "a small, yellow poker chip" makes more sense.
    – Lambie
    Dec 30, 2022 at 18:20
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    @Lambie: Your style is your privilege, and that is certainly in line with this answer's main point.
    – Robusto
    Dec 30, 2022 at 19:14
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    Is the planet a watery blue or watery and blue? Dec 30, 2022 at 19:22
  • @EdwinAshworth: Your choice.
    – Robusto
    Dec 30, 2022 at 19:35
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    @EdwinAshworth: So you can. And some stylistic choices are better than others, in my view. But nobody speaking the words "watery blue planet" inserts commas, and everybody listening decides whether the description needs clarification, or everybody can just move along. Even if you hyphenate to yield "watery-blue" readers will still form different opinions about what is meant.
    – Robusto
    Dec 30, 2022 at 20:34
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@Robusto's answer has all the information one needs, except he didn't say in so many words that

  • Commas, unlike a lot of other punctuation, represent spoken (i.e, real) English.

In particular, commas represent one special intonation contour in English -- a melody, if you like -- starting at middle tone a syllable or two before the comma, then going up to high pitch, then down to low, then back to mid after the comma. You can hear it in counting numbers, in cadence:

  • "...fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five. There you are. Fifty-five fat frankfurters"

It's important to say this because commas are often described as a "pause", but they aren't pauses. Speech is a stream of sound, without pauses, except for hesitations and full stops. We are taught to think of a comma as a pause, because we put a space after it, but thats just another artificial convention like apostrophes, which are just printers marks that dont represent anything existing in language.

So the answer to any question about commas (outside programming languages) is to say it out loud and see whether you can hear a comma. If you do, print it. If you don't, leave it out. If you're not a native speaker, try to find one to read it out loud for you.

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  1. Yes
  2. Depends. Here are some examples:

The big, blue house

The purple and gray house

An annoying, slobbery dog

The last two donuts

Your first example is correct "It's a big, black, plastic handle." Meanwhile, none of your other examples are correct. You should only put commas between the adjectives, not between the adjectives and the noun. It should be

A big, black handle

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