Those Adjectives Need a Comma

I am a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates. My home library contains her books 

  • Expensive People,
  • You Must Remember This,
  • Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang,
  • We Were the Mulvaneys,
  • Man Crazy,
  • I’ll Take You There,
  • The Tattooed Girl,
  • The Falls,
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter,
  • Fair Maiden, and
  • Beasts.

 Joyce Carol Oates is a master story crafter, and each book demonstrates both her deeply personal yet imaginative storytelling ability and her demanding yet aesthetically responsive editing skills.

Sample Pair of Adjectives

And, relevant to this blog, she knows how to use commas, as evident throughout her writing. I was reading her biography at http://www.princeton.edu/arts/arts_at_princeton/creative_writing/professor_bios/oates/ (biography by Roger Berlind) and came across this gem, which will bring us to the point of this post:

Yet she has also admitted that the rural, rough-and-tumble surroundings of her early years involved “a daily scramble for existence.” 

When we parse this quotation, we see that this quotation has a pair of adjectives, rural and rough-and-tumble, both of which equally describe surroundings. The comma that separates them follows Zen Comma Rule P: Place a comma between coordinate adjectives

Test for Coordinate Adjectives

Coordinate adjectives are two or more adjectives that (a) equally modify a following noun, (b) do not affect the meaning of each other, and (c) can be used independently without changing the meaning of the noun or making the sentence ungrammatical. 

To determine whether adjectives are coordinate adjectives, use this 2-part test:

  1. Place the word and between them and see if the meaning changes;
  2. Reverse their order and see if the meaning changes.

If the meaning doesn’t change, they are likely coordinate. Let’s try this with the sentence from Joyce Carol Oates’s biography.

  1. “…her rural and rough-and-tumble surroundings….” Yes, this still makes sense without changing the meaning.
  2. “…her rough-and-tumble, rural surroundings….” Yes, this, too, still makes sense without changing the meaning.

Based on this test, these are coordinate adjectives, and they are correctly separated with a comma.

Using the Royal Order of Adjectives

For a more technical explanation of coordinate adjectives, we need to use the Royal Order of Adjectives. The Royal Order of Adjectives is the order in which native English speakers naturally create a string of adjectives. In order, adjectives are added as follows.

  1. Determiners (e.g., the, this)
  2. Observations
  3. Size
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Nationality
  8. Material
  9. Type

For example, we could say that Joyce Carol Oates is the [determiner] premier [observation] American [nationality] novel [type] writer. Generally, if we have a pair of adjectives of the same type, based on the Royal Order of Adjectives, they will be coordinate adjectives and will need to be separated by a comma. 

In the sample from her biography, we see that rural and rough-and-tumble are both observation adjectives. Because they are the same type of adjective, they are separated by a comma. 

How to Become a Comma Master

I have often said that a person who aspires to be a great writer, regardless of the genre, needs first to be a great reader. This also holds true for comma usage. To use commas correctly and naturally, read texts from writers who use commas correctly, from Comma Masters.

With a nod to R. Berlin for his biography, Joyce Carol Oates is a comma master.


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

Your Writing Companion: Our e-book with samples from each of our writing guides: Get the free e-book (PDF, 45 pages) or purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

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