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Adjectives in a series: Commas or no commas?

by | Jan 21, 2010 | Grammar & Spelling

Sometimes we get grammar questions in the WriteShop mailbag.

Q: How is it determined when commas are needed or not needed between adjectives in a series? In WriteShop’s Copying and Dictation Exercises, Lesson 5, there’s a phrase I’m confused about. “Bright, fresh lemon flavor” has a comma between the adjectives bright and fresh, but not between the adjectives fresh and lemon. Further on in the paragraph, the words “special fresh flavor” have no commas between adjectives. Can you help?

A: This is a great question, and one that many families would love to understand. I find Jane Straus’s rule easy to apply.

Use the “and” test

According to Jane Straus, author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, it’s actually pretty simple:

Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the word and can be inserted between them.

Examples: He is a strong, healthy man
                The man is strong and healthy; hence a comma.

    We stayed at an expensive summer resort.
    You would not say expensive and summer resort, so
    no comma.

Going back to your example, we could say “bright and fresh lemon flavor.” That’s why there’s a comma between the first two adjectives. But we wouldn’t say “fresh and lemon flavor,” so no comma.

Reverse the adjectives

Another test: Can you reverse the adjectives and maintain the meaning?

Examples: He is a healthy, strong man still works, as does
                fresh, bright lemon flavor.

                Summer expensive resort and bright, lemon, fresh
do not pass the reversal test.

Note: You could correctly say “bright, lemon-fresh flavor,” but that places a different meaning on the sentence altogether!

One last example

The word “special” refers to the “fresh flavor” as a whole. It’s not a “special flavor,” nor is it simply a “fresh flavor.” It’s a “special fresh flavor.” Since it’s not likely one would say “special and fresh flavor,” the “and” rule applies.

Not only that, the phrase “special fresh flavor” means something different from “fresh special flavor.” The reversal rule works well here as well to demonstrate that no comma is needed.

. . . . . 

We love The Blue Book so much that we’ve been carrying it for years in the WriteShop store. We also include it in the WriteShop Starter Pack. It’s a combination reference book and workbook, oh so easy to use, and handy for home or office. Jane’s examples are short, simple, and practical. We know you’ll love it too! Want to read some reviews? Just click here. And to read some of Jane’s Grammar Nuggets, type “Jane” in the search box above.