Crossword Commas

Here’s a little tidbit I found today while working my way through another book of crossword puzzles:

Velvety, green plant on a tree trunk

This crossword puzzle clue has one comma, and it’s wrong. Let’s find out why.

This comma seems, at face value, to be following Zen Comma Rule P: Place a comma between coordinate adjectives. First, we need to figure out whether velvety and green are coordinate adjectives. Once we do that, we’ll know whether or not Rule P applies.

Finding Coordinate Adjectives

We can apply a simple test to determine whether or not they are coordinate:

  1. We can put and between them without changing the meaning
  2. We can reverse their order without changing the meaning

Applying the Test

Ok, if these are coordinate, then we can say Velvety and green plant and Green, velvety plant without changing the meaning. The first option seems fine, but the second one doesn’t. If we reverse their order, we indicate that there are various types of velvety plants that grow on trees, and that this clue refers to the green ones.

When we apply test #2, the meaning changes. If these two adjectives were coordinate, they would both refer equally to plant.  However, the clue is referring to green plants that are velvety.  Velvety is referring not to plant but to green plant.

Thus, the second criterion is not met, so the two adjectives are not coordinate. This means the crossword puzzle clue should not have a comma between Velvety and green.

(As a quick tip, adjectives for color are almost always non-coordinate.)

Fixing the Comma Error

To be correct, this crossword clue should have followed Zen Comma Rule R: Don’t place a comma between non-coordinate adjectives. Because the adjectives are non-coordinate, we simply need to remove the comma to correct this puzzle clue.

In case you’re curious, the answer to the clue is moss.


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