A Comma Changes the Meaning

Yesterday’s post included a discussion of coordinate adjectives (see “Hendrix’s Use of Commas: 1. Commas between coordinate adjectives“). Briefly, if two adjectives equally describe the noun that follows, they are coordinate and need to be separated by a comma.

But what happens if you leave out the comma? You change the meaning of the sentence! Let’s look at two examples from Zen Comma, Chapter 9.

9.4. I have a fast, inexpensive car.

In this sample, fast and inexpensive equally describe car. They are coordinate and are separated by a comma. The comma tells the reader that fast does not describe inexpensive but something else, namely car. This comma use follows Zen Comma Rule P: Place a comma between coordinate adjectives.

Now, let’s leave out that comma and see how the meaning changes.

9.5. I have a fast inexpensive car.

Without the comma, the adjectives are no longer coordinate! They are no longer separated, which means that they must be different types of adjectives. In fact, the only way for these adjectives to be non-coordinate, which means they don’t need a comma, is for them to be different types. This follows Zen Comma Rule Q: Leave out the comma between coordinate adjectives to make them non-coordinate and change the meaning.

What does example 9.5 mean? It means that inexpensive is a type of car, different from, for example, the types of cars known as expensive cars or medium-priced cars. So inexpensive car is a type of car, and I have a fast one. Because the adjectives are not coordinate, based on the missing comma, example 9.5 is discussing a category of cars known as inexpensive cars. Perhaps you have a slow one; I have a fast one.

As I mentioned above, a comma between coordinate adjectives shows that the first adjective does not describe the second adjective. Without the comma, however, this is not the case: fast IS describing inexpensive and car together, and the meaning of the sentence has changed.

Shall we try another?

Put the thick, round gear in the box.

This example has a comma between thick and round, indicating that these adjectives are coordinate. They both describe gear. The gear is thick and round.

Put the thick round gear in the box.

Without the comma, thick and round no longer describe box. Rather, we now have a type of gear called round gears. Maybe another category is hexagonal gears. Which round gear shall I put in the box? The thick one. I look at the round gears, find the thick one, and put it in the box.

Because the adjectives are no longer coordinate, based on the missing comma, thick does not describe gear; it describes round and gear together, and the meaning has changed.

What does this all mean for you as you consider whether or not to put a comma between adjectives?

  1. If the adjectives equally describe the noun that follows, put in the comma.
  2. If you are writing about a category of things, and the first adjective describes an item in that category, leave the comma out.
  3. Choose carefully because that comma determines the meaning of the sentence.

(This post is featured on Cool Rules…for writers. Thanks, guys!)

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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