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Commas in a Series—Adjectives Before a Noun

I tend to organize elements in my sentences in sets of three—three items in a series, three-phrase predicates, three adjectives before a noun. I do it a lot because it creates a certain rhythm, it balances out the sentence and I like it. You can probably see that I’m doing it now, that it seems to come naturally to me and that I could go on doing it forever.

But writing like this requires a certain facility with a comma.

I’ve already written a post on the Oxford Comma—what it is, why I never use it and why you probably should.

This post is a cousin of that one.

In English, adjectives appear in a sentence before the nouns they modify. When there are several of them (I like three), they need to be separated from one another

There aren’t enough words to describe the arrogance of the egotistical, narcissistic, self-absorbed jerk who teaches that class.

Three things.

  • First, notice that you could easily replace each of those commas with the conjunction and. Commas are the better, more economical choice, but and would work.
  • Second, each adjective very clearly modifies the noun (egotistical jerk, narcissistic jerk, self-absorbed jerk).  
  • Third, there is no comma between the final adjective in the series (self-absorbed) and the noun (jerk). We don’t separate an adjective from a noun, but, when there’s a series of adjectives, we separate them from each other.

Simple enough.

Problems occur when we think something in our series is an adjective but it isn’t.

His greasy, ancient hipster haircut is enough to give off giant, bright red flags.

Notice here the two key places where commas are not. There is no comma after ancient because is modifies hipster and not haircut. And there is no comma after bright because it modifies red and not flags. (Not to complicate the issue, but, because ancient and bright each modify an adjective, they are adverbs and not adjectives at all.)

So, to determine whether or not to place commas in our series of adjectives before a noun, we have to decide just what each word in the series modifies. If it modifies the noun—in this case haircut or flags—then throw those commas right on in there. If they modify each other—like ancient modifying hipster and bright modifying red—then don’t. (To avoid any question, I would hyphenate these as two-word adjectives. In fact, I do it all the time. Not all experts agree, but it works swimmingly for me.)

Try your hand at these. There are no commas. There should be. Place them. (Answers on the Oxford Comma post.)

1. The quick deep red fox jumped over the lazy dark eyed dog.

2. That beefsteak tomato red sports car attracted a lot of attention from garden fresh vegetable lovers.

3. The little lemon yellow goldfinch flashes neon in a yard full of plain small gray birds.

4.  The rich dark expensive chocolate was not sweet enough for the immature uncultivated unpretentious tastes of the children.

5. Commas can be a pain, but our written language would be a mucus green primordial ooze clogged slush pit of a swamp without them.


Answers From Previous Post–My versions of sentences with introductory participial phrases.

  • Saving her appetite for dinner, Jocelyn ran past her favorite bakery, salivating all the way.
  • Meandering through the wonderful new marketplace, the distracted tour guide lost track of most of her group but bought some great stuff.
  • Attempting a feat that had never been done, the acrobats feared for their lives but carried on knowing there was leftover for dinner.
  • Juggling a thousand tasks, Bertrand looked pretty busy for a guy who never finished anything.
  • Pedaling as fast as she could, Shaleen was ok with being the last to finish if it meant that she could finally stop.
  • Electrified by the performance, the audience rose to its feet and applauded for an exhausting forty-five minutes.
  • Terrified by the thunder, poor Bootsy had to be coaxed out from under the bed with table scraps and folk songs hours after the storm had passed.
  • Astonished by the job offer, Edward, certain that HR called him by mistake, very nearly turned it down.
  • Honored by the award, the graduate made an impromptu speech that took an hour and annoyed most everyone.
  • Educated at the finest ivy league schools, the Wilderstone twins nonetheless led oblivious, inconsequential lives.

Answers–My versions of sentences with introductory prepositional phrases.

  • In the folder in the middle of her desk, the list that Babs had been searching for all morning sat smugly, tauntingly and in plain sight.
  • Between the lines, Belinda found the answers to her most burning questions.
  • From the depths of time, the creature emerged with substance and hunger.
  • Before the game, the parents thought it was a good idea to take the kids out for a lunch of pizza and ice cream. It wasn’t.
  • Under the boardwalk, Twyla felt cramped and itchy. Whose idea was this?
  • With school out of the way, Harry was free to concentrate on his recreational aspirations.
  • Across the hemisphere, wildfire smoked billowed, blocking the sun for days.
  • Through town and hamlet, over dirt and asphalt, for better or worse, we drove our ancient Phaeton to the Classic Car Jamboree. (Why do you think I’ve used commas to separate these prepositional phrases from each other?)
  • At the heart of it all, they knew that they were doing the right thing.
  • Around a corner in the downstairs bedroom of the small, unassuming house, there was a closet that hid a portal to the most astounding parallel universe the galaxy has ever known.