For such a tiny little smudge of a mark, the comma can frustrate a copyeditor to no end. For example, if a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives, the thoughtful copyeditor can spend minutes deciding whether and where commas should be placed. It’s a common editorial dilemma.
Or is it a common, editorial dilemma?
Style guides offer a number of ways to think about those adjectives to help you decide whether to drop in a comma.
The Chicago Manual of Style’s guidance (at 5.91 and 6.36) revolves around coordinate adjectives. “A coordinate adjective is one that appears in a sequence with one or more related adjectives to modify the same noun.” As a guideline — which is reiterated in Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition — if two or more adjectives before a noun can be separated by the word and without altering the meaning of the sentence, then they are coordinate adjectives and should be separated by a comma or commas. Another test is to reverse the order of the adjectives; if the meaning doesn’t change, then a comma is called for.
“McWatt crinkled his fine, freckled nose apologetically . . .” (“his fine and freckled nose” or “his freckled, fine nose”) —Joseph Heller, Catch-22
A comma is not necessary when an adjective-noun pair form a unit and another adjective modifies the unit instead of just the noun.
“. . . and when the great wooden lids were pried up, there was the good white rice bubbling and boiling, and clouds of fragrant steam rose up.” —Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth
That’s more or less the entirety of Chicago’s advice, leaving you to your own editorial judgment to take it from there.
The New Oxford Style Manual (what I like to think of as the British Chicago Manual of Style) comes at the problem from a different angle. It categorizes adjectives as either classifying (red, immoral, American) or gradable or qualitative (happy, stupid, large). Gradable/Qualitative adjectives, says Oxford, “can be used in the comparative and superlative and be modified by a word such as very.” Not so for classifying adjectives.
Given these two categories, Oxford’s basic guidelines are this:
1. No comma is needed to separate adjectives of different types. Put another way, a noun can bear one qualitative and one classifying adjective without needing a comma.
“The air over and above the vast concrete river trembled with the warmth of Montag’s body alone…” (vast is qualitative; concrete is classifying) —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
2. The use of two or more qualitative adjectives — those with common comparative and superlative forms — requires a comma or commas:
“The long, dark tea-time of the soul.”
3. You don’t need a comma between two or more classifying adjectives if they relate to different classifying systems. The examples given in the text are French medieval lyric poets and annual economic growth.
In theory, these seem like useful, if not overly academic, guidelines for getting you through this comma dilemma, but in practice, Oxford‘s guidance has two problems:
First, it leads to contradictions with what we find in Chicago — and remember, this is not about cross-cultural differences; these guidelines are meant to describe the same phenomenon. One example Oxford gives as a phrase in which the comma is not necessary is “a small edible fish.” But if you put this phrase to Chicago’s tests, you get the perfectly reasonable “a small and edible fish” and “an edible, small fish,” leading us to believe a comma is necessary.
Second, categorizing adjectives as either qualitative or classifying isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. We can find meaning in comparative and superlative versions of nearly any adjective, including those Oxford would label as classifying adjectives, such as more American and most unimpressive. As a further example, one of Oxford‘s examples of a classifying adjective is black, but as any Green Lantern will tell you, colors are subject to comparison: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight…” By what standard do we decide whether an adjective is classifying or qualitative?
Throughout this post, I’ve intentionally avoided the word rule, choosing instead guideline. That’s because many cases offer an editorial choice; a phrase may be equally correct with or without a comma. Oxford at least tips its proverbial hat to this idea: “Writers may depart from these general principles in order to give a particular effect, for example to give pace to a narrative or to follow a style.”
In creative writing especially, but I believe in most writing, when you have to choose between an author’s style and the “rules” of grammar and usage, style should win out every time. No one ever chooses their favorite line from a book based on how grammatical it is.
Few would argue that this line from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea would be improved by the addition of commas. Extra punctuation would only muddle up Hemingway’s particular style:
“…looking down in the water among the empty beer cans and dead barracudas a woman saw a great long white spine with a huge tail at the end that lifted and swung with the tide…”
And it should be noted that Douglas Adams’s follow-up to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is titled The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul . . . with no comma.