Commas between Adjectives in Creative Writing

Do you sometimes dither over whether to put a comma between two or more adjectives?

a polished, spherical stone or a polished spherical stone?

a nice, big check or a nice big check?

Although the guidelines for deciding at CMOS 5.91 and CMOS 6.36–37 work well for any kind of writing, there are times when creative writers prefer to ignore them.

The Chicago Way

CMOS 5.91 says to use a comma if the adjectives are “coordinate adjectives,” and CMOS 6.36 offers a couple of ways to determine whether they are. Ask yourself two questions:

(1) Does “and” work well between the adjectives?

a polished and spherical stone (yes)

a nice and big check (no)

(2) Would the adjectives make sense in reverse order?

a spherical, polished stone (yes)

a big, nice check (no)

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then the adjectives are coordinate and take a comma (or “and”):

A polished, spherical stone or a polished and spherical stone

a nice big check

Another way to test for coordinate adjectives is to consider whether the noun forms a unit of meaning with one or more of the adjectives:

a faulty hot plate (yes: “hot plate” is a unit)

an unused rolling pin (yes: “rolling pin” is a unit)

a humorous, flattering remark (no: “remark” stands alone)

If the answer is yes, then the adjectives are not coordinate, and the comma is omitted.

Cautions

  • Adjective-noun units of meaning might extend to include other coordinate adjective pairs that normally take a comma: “an ancient, faulty hot plate”; “a dusty, unused rolling pin.”
  • An adjective-noun unit of meaning can consist of more than two words, in which case the whole string can survive without commas: “a lucrative freelance job contract”; “the lavish swim-up buffet offerings.”
  • A string of adjectives might cause a writer to get carried away and accidentally put a comma before the noun. In the following example, there’s no comma before “murmuration”:

A wondrous, swirling, honking murmuration filled the sky.

TIP
Normally, coordinate adjectives that appear after the noun they modify are separated by “and” rather than a comma.

It was a ridiculous, brazen gesture.

The gesture was ridiculous and brazen.

Of course, that rule begs to be broken. Opening a book at random from my shelf, Amy Timberlake’s Skunk and Badger, I didn’t have to read far to find “You sprayed. Everyone knows that skunk spray is despicable, deplorable, vile” (90).

When a Comma Intrudes

There are times when a comma between adjectives is “correct” but just doesn’t seem right. It slows things down or draws attention to itself. The difference is a subtle one that careful writers value.

Consider the last sentence in this passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (125):

All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants.

It’s clear from the passage that in general Hurston is fine with using commas. Although coordinate adjectives aren’t plentiful in this work, I found some with commas (“fresh, new taste” [63] and “loud-talking, staggering men” [142]), and others without (“fresh young darkness” [6], “poor broken creature” [179], and “white silken couch” [180]).

So why not write “the rich, black earth”? Perhaps because a comma would invite us to linger on its richness and blackness—qualities of the soil that Hurston took pains to describe two pages earlier. The point in this sentence is less about that soil and more about its being encrusted on the bodies of workers deprived of bathtubs. Neither version is inherently better on its own, but each is exactly right for a particular context or character’s voice.

TIP

Per CMOS 6.37, repeated adjectives normally take a comma between them: “Many, many people have enjoyed the book.” But especially in dialogue, leaving out the comma helps convey tone of voice.

“But that was a long, long time ago!”

“But that was a long long time ago!”

The first version reads as emphatic; depending on context, the second one could sound rushed or even flippant.

What about Consistency?

It’s easy to find examples of writers who generally observe comma rules but make a consistent exception for coordinate adjectives. On a single page in The Bar Harbor Formation, for instance, Ann Rutherfurd Austin demonstrates her preference, writing “dusty ornate frames,” “dirty cotton innards,” and “sickly pale green streamers”* (129) in a novel that otherwise seems to be punctuated in a (mostly) conventional way.

It’s also easy to find novels (or creative nonfiction) in which the commas separating coordinate adjectives appear to have been decided case by case, not according to a rule, like the examples above from Their Eyes Were Watching God. Also from random dipping into books on my shelves:

Middlemarch, by George Eliot: “handsomer, better children” (251) and “a white soft living substance” (252)

Death at Hull House, by Frances McNamara: “a tall, imposing woman print setter” (100) and “an empty filthy sweatshop” (154)

American Pie, by Pascale Le Draoulec: “the small unassuming house” (19) and “a small, honest bakery” (150)

At this point, many writers will be wondering if they’re the only ones who wing it when it comes to commas, writing intuitively with the idea that an editor will sort out any difficulties later. Believe me, you’re not alone. If the coordinate adjectives in a novel are unrelentingly adorned with commas, you can bet it’s because a copyeditor cast an eye over it, following a style manual like CMOS.

On the other hand, a seeming lack of consistency doesn’t necessarily mean poor copyediting. Good editors are sensitive to context and can recognize when the presence or absence of a comma makes a difference worth a small breach of convention.

Sources

Austin, Ann Rutherfurd. The Bar Harbor Formation. Thomaston, ME: Indie Author Books, 2018.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Perennial Library, 1990.

Le Draoulec, Pascale. American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America’s Back Roads. New York: Perennial, 2003.

McNamara, Frances. Death at Hull House. Chicago: Allium Press, 2009.

Timberlake, Amy. Skunk and Badger. With pictures by Jon Klassen. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2020.


* The dilemma over hyphenating phrases like “pale-green” is a topic for another day.

Photo of amethyst quartz courtesy of Pixabay.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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