Commas with pairs of adjectives are confusing, perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar and punctuation. The question is simple: do you use a comma or not between two adjectives or other modifiers? The choice you make about when to use commas can affect the message you communicate.
A Tricky Use of Commas
With that in mind, I was reading the local paper this morning (always a fun source of both reporting bias and English grammar errors) and came across this example of the problem with pairs of adjectives:
And some Santa Feans complain that too much of the money collected goes to an out-of-state, for-profit company. (underlining mine; http://www.santafenewmexican.com/SantaFeNorthernNM/Traffic-calmer–drivers-fuming-Mobile-speed-monitors–Police-to)
To be fair, this is the only comma error I spotted, making me think that the reporter does know when to use commas and does have a decent grasp of English grammar. But this one is, as I mentioned, rather tricky.
When to Use Commas
Here’s the basic principle for the use of commas between pairs of adjectives:
- If both adjectives equally describe the noun that follows, they will need a comma. We call these “coordinate adjectives.” This use of commas follows Zen Comma Rule P: Place a comma between coordinate adjectives.
- If the first adjective describes the second adjective and noun together, they don’t need a comma. We call these “non-coordinate adjectives.” This use of commas (or the absence of the comma) follows Zen Comma Rule R: Don’t place a comma between non-coordinate adjectives.
Let’s see how this applies to the sample.
First adjective: out-of-state
Second adjective: for-profit
Noun that follows: company
A “for-profit company” is a type of company, different than, for example, a non-profit or not-for-profit company. The term “for-profit” doesn’t just describe “company.” Rather, “for-profit” is a type of company. A “for-profit company” is a thing itself. Now, some for-profit companies are in-state, and some are out-of-state. The term “out-of-state” doesn’t describe “company.” Rather, it describes “for-profit company,” or “for-profit” and “company” together.
What does this tell us about the use of commas in this sample? It tells us the comma doesn’t need to be there. The terms “out-of-state” and “for-profit” do not equally describe “company,” and, using our knowledge of English grammar to parse the sentence, we found that “out-of-state” isn’t describing “company.” Thus, the condition needed for that comma has not been met.
The Basic Use of Commas
If we think a bit about the use of commas and what they do, we realize that commas separate elements in a sentence, identify them, so the reader can understand the message being communicated. Once you understand this basic principle, you will, in most cases, know when to use commas.
The comma in the sample separates the two adjectives, but that is wrong. The comma is separating the first adjective from the term it is describing (“for-profit company), which is, ultimately, the error here.
You can read more info about this use of commas in the post “Those Adjectives Need a Comma.”
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.