Author Topic: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)  (Read 875 times)  

Offline Becca Mills

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I don't know if this will be helpful for anyone, but I just wrote up a mini-lesson on when to use commas between adjectives that precede a noun. Figured it couldn't hurt to share it here, as it's a topic I find myself puzzling over sometimes during editing.

***

Sometimes people are taught that whenever you precede a noun with more than one adjective, you put commas between them. That's actually not true. You only put commas between such adjectives if you could replace the comma with "and" without it sounding weird. So ...

I saw a slouching, shifty-eyed American man enter the bar.

The comma between "slouching" and "shifty-eyed" is correct because you could say ...

I saw a slouching and shifty-eyed American man enter the bar.

...without sounding odd. But if you also added a comma before "American," that wouldn't be correct, even though "American" is just another adjective in the list:

I saw a slouching, shifty-eyed and American man enter the bar.

Sounds weird, right? So no comma there.

The other test is whether you can swap the adjectives' order:

I saw a slouching, shifty-eyed American man enter the bar.

I saw a shifty-eyed, slouching American man enter the bar.


Both sound okay, right? So the comma between "slouching" and "shifty-eyed" is correct.

Nerd out: The official way of describing this situation is that only adjectives that are coordinate have commas between them when they precede a noun. Coordinate basically means the adjectives are completely equal in function, and thus their order can be swapped. You can see how "shifty-eyed" and "slouching" are similar in function (they both describe appearance) whereas "American" is getting into a different category (nationality). Often adjectives that fit into unlike categories become subject to English's adjective-ordering conventions. Their order thus can't be changed, and they're not coordinate. These adjectives are called cumulative. So, the rule is that you do put commas between coordinate adjectives, and you don't put commas between cumulative adjectives. :)
« Last Edit: October 16, 2020, 01:18:55 pm by Becca Mills »

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    Offline Karen Monroe

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #1 on: October 16, 2020, 01:32:51 pm »
    I will be honest and admit I still struggle with and other basic grammar. My focus is on the story and its easy to miss the simple stuff.

    Thank you!

    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #2 on: October 16, 2020, 01:40:39 pm »
    I will be honest and admit I still struggle with and other basic grammar. My focus is on the story and its easy to miss the simple stuff.

    Thank you!

    You're welcome! I think there's a very good argument to be made for just being a storyteller and letting your editor worry about the mechanics. That's probably the best approach. But I figure some folks need or want to self-edit, and some just like this stuff. :)

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #3 on: October 16, 2020, 01:48:37 pm »
    This was really useful! I have such a problem with commas. Nice technique to test my sentences against.

    Offline Decon

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #4 on: October 16, 2020, 01:59:44 pm »
    Sometimes grammar is an ass. Especially if it gives you permission to write a sentence like in the example.

    I put commas in where common sense and grammar check tells me they should be. But when I play back with text to speach, if the pause makes the sentence sound stilted when listening, it will appear stilted when reading and unnatural. If it doesn't alter context, I take them out, or re-word the sentence, especially if taking out the comma turns it into a tongue twister.

    This reads better to me without the comma. The comma adds a pause there that wouldn't be used when saying it. Saying that, I wouldn't have included "slouching".

    I saw a slouching shifty-eyed American man enter the bar.

    Starting with "I saw" also makes it passive. Taking that out, the comma makes sense with minor alterations. .

    Slouching, a shifty-eyed American man entered the bar

    I know the sentence is only an example, but I'd probably have changed it to two sentences, because how would they know he was American?

    A shifty-eyed guy walked across to the bar. As soon as he ordered a drink, I knew he was  American.

    If walking through the door and slouching is important to convey his movement progression and caginess, or nervousness, I'd have had a short sentence before that, then started the next with the gerund and used a comma. I would have assumed we knew the narrator was in the bar.

    The door opened. Slouching, a shifty-eyed guy entered and walked across to the bar. As soon as he ordered a drink, I knew he was  American.

    « Last Edit: October 17, 2020, 01:40:28 am by Decon »


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    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #5 on: October 17, 2020, 10:38:42 am »
    Sometimes grammar is an ass. Especially if it gives you permission to write a sentence like in the example.

    I put commas in where common sense and grammar check tells me they should be. But when I play back with text to speach, if the pause makes the sentence sound stilted when listening, it will appear stilted when reading and unnatural. If it doesn't alter context, I take them out, or re-word the sentence, especially if taking out the comma turns it into a tongue twister.

    This reads better to me without the comma. The comma adds a pause there that wouldn't be used when saying it. Saying that, I wouldn't have included "slouching".

    I saw a slouching shifty-eyed American man enter the bar.

    Starting with "I saw" also makes it passive. Taking that out, the comma makes sense with minor alterations. .

    Slouching, a shifty-eyed American man entered the bar

    I know the sentence is only an example, but I'd probably have changed it to two sentences, because how would they know he was American?

    A shifty-eyed guy walked across to the bar. As soon as he ordered a drink, I knew he was  American.

    If walking through the door and slouching is important to convey his movement progression and caginess, or nervousness, I'd have had a short sentence before that, then started the next with the gerund and used a comma. I would have assumed we knew the narrator was in the bar.

    The door opened. Slouching, a shifty-eyed guy entered and walked across to the bar. As soon as he ordered a drink, I knew he was  American.

    Yeah, I always have trouble coming up with good example sentences when I want to illustrate a rule. You're right that there are many better ways to convey that material!

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #6 on: October 17, 2020, 02:40:53 pm »
    This is really handy.  Thanks Becca  :D  Definitely got me to learn something good today.

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #7 on: October 18, 2020, 04:20:41 am »
    Yeah, I always have trouble coming up with good example sentences when I want to illustrate a rule. You're right that there are many better ways to convey that material!

    Yours. is a worthwhile post and the examples are memorable as to when to or not to use the comma. Pity we don't have a regular craft thread.

    MY biggest trouble is capitalisation. I  never know if it should be state, states or State, States when referring to US states without actually naming the states or states.

    Also capitializing titles like say Secretary of Homeland Security, without the persons name.

    Is it

    The secretary of homeland security walked into the room.

    Or, The secretary of Homeland Security walked into the room

    Or say,  In walked Secretary Johnson of Homeland Security.

    I don't have a clue which is right if any.

    I  know president is only capitalised if followed by the president's name, but other titles are beyond me without researching, unless you use say, Mr. President, or Mr. Secretary.

    Eg:  Over at the sink, the president cupped his hands in the water.

    Over at the sink, President Walker cupped his hands the the water.

    "What time is it, Mr. President?"
    "What time is it?" I asked the president.

    "




    « Last Edit: October 18, 2020, 04:48:56 am by Decon »


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    Offline Blerg et al.

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #8 on: October 18, 2020, 05:10:23 am »
    I don't know if this will be helpful for anyone, but I just wrote up a mini-lesson on when to use commas between adjectives that precede a noun. Figured it couldn't hurt to share it here, as it's a topic I find myself puzzling over sometimes during editing.

    You are always appreciated. While I knew this one, I often forget it during editing as I am frantically trying to reduce the number of commas are use out of habit.
    Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to cautiously slouch down to the nearest bar.
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    Offline A past poster

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #9 on: October 18, 2020, 07:05:58 am »

    MY biggest trouble is capitalisation. I  never know if it should be state, states or State, States when referring to US states without actually naming the states or states.

    Also capitializing titles like say Secretary of Homeland Security, without the persons name.





    I was careless in my reply and recommended the wrong book.  Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is excellent, but it isn't the book that will help you.  Margret Shertzer's book, The Elements of Grammar, is a slim volume that has a full chapter on capitalization. It also has chapters on punctuation, expressing numbers, etc. It's a valuable resource.
    « Last Edit: October 18, 2020, 02:40:04 pm by A past poster »

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #10 on: October 18, 2020, 07:17:09 am »
    Strunk and White's slim book, "The Elements of Style,"  has the rules on capitalization and so much more.  It's easy to use and one of the best investments a writer can make.


    Yup, Good old Strunk and White, been my sidekicks for years. As creative writers, we sometimes break the rules.  But, we should know the rules and why we break them before we do it.

    S & W - a great resource.  :) 

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #11 on: October 18, 2020, 09:42:59 am »
    Strunk and White's slim book, "The Elements of Style,"  has the rules on capitalization and so much more.  It's easy to use and one of the best investments a writer can make.

    Thanks for the info. I just write it any old way in draft the look it up with Internet searches at edit, usually Chicago style guide


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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #12 on: October 18, 2020, 10:13:30 am »
    As creative writers, we sometimes break the rules.  But, we should know the rules and why we break them before we do it.

    S & W - a great resource.


    While I recommend it highly to my clients and journalism students, and I use and admire it, I make it clear that the Elements of Style is about clarity and style in writing.


    It is not a book of grammar rules.


    As a style guide it is superb but it has been criticized for years, mostly unfairly, as being a dangerously prescriptive trap for the unwary. The authors of the book make mention that it is not a grammar rule book and shouldn't be used as such, but many people either never read that warning or don't understand what that means.

    A brief web search will bring up a lot of these points but beware because emotions reach flame heat easily when talking about this book.

    If you are looking for a style and grammar resource I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style. While aimed at the North American writing and publishing industry it is exemplary in pointing out how various points are treated differently in so-called British english. My recommendation is a personal one for the CMOS because I grew up through the North American journalism system. I tell people to buy the "stuff it in a back pocket" Elements of Style and then wander through a library checking out the various style and grammar guides until you find something you can live with.

    And take to heart the adage that, "You can't go breaking the rules until you fully understand them."

    One other point to remember. The quickest way to ruin friendships and relationships is to argue about grammar. Do not be a grammar nazi.



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    Offline A past poster

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #13 on: October 18, 2020, 02:32:49 pm »

    While I recommend it highly to my clients and journalism students, and I use and admire it, I make it clear that the Elements of Style is about clarity and style in writing.


    It is not a book of grammar rules.


    As a style guide it is superb but it has been criticized for years, mostly unfairly, as being a dangerously prescriptive trap for the unwary. The authors of the book make mention that it is not a grammar rule book and shouldn't be used as such, but many people either never read that warning or don't understand what that means.

    If you are looking for a style and grammar resource I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style.

    The Chicago Manual of Style is the grammar Bible. For ease of use, however, I prefer The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer. My copy is so old that I don't know if it's in print anymore.

    I'm glad you posted. I haven't used Strunk & White or Shertzer in a while, and I gave incorrect advice in my earlier post.


    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #14 on: October 18, 2020, 03:56:07 pm »
    I haven't read Strunk & White in many years, but I recall it having some weirdness in among the good advice. Examples of "passive voice" that weren't actually passive? Something like that ...

    Decon, the rule I follow for titles is to capitalize when they're 1) short, 2) used right before someone's last name, 3) without intervening punctuation. When these three criteria are met, the title effectively becomes part of the person's name, as with Ms. Sanchez or Mr. Brown. So the rules you're using for "president" would apply to all other titles as well, but once the title gets too long to plausibly use as part of someone's name, then uppercasing the whole thing before the name is to be avoided:

    After shaking hands with the general, President Smith boarded the aircraft.
    > President is basically part of her name here.

    After shaking hands with the general, the president boarded the aircraft.
    > There's no name here, just a regular noun.

    After shaking hands with the general, the president, Barbara Smith, boarded the aircraft.
    > Because of the intervening punctuation, president is not part of her name here. Also, her first name is in there.

    After shaking hands with the scientist, Vice President of Research and Product Development Sam Washington boarded the aircraft.
    > I don't like the above sentence because while someone could plausibly say, "Hello, Vice President Washington," no one would plausibly say, "Hello, Vice President of Research and Product Development Sam Washington." The whole title is too long to be considered part of his name, so it's awkward. I'd rewrite to something like: After shaking hands with the scientist, the vice president of research and product development, Sam Washington, boarded the aircraft. or After shaking hands with the scientist, Sam Washington, who was vice president of research and product development, boarded the aircraft.

    The secretary of homeland security walked into the room.
    > Just a regular noun.

    The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security walked into the room.
    > Department of Homeland Security is a proper noun.

    In walked Secretary Johnson of Homeland Security.
    > Secretary is functioning as part of his name here, and Homeland Security is a proper noun.

    On state and states, here's what I do:

    I live in the United States.

    Have you been to the States recently? No, the flights are too expensive.

    Have you been to Rhode Island? No, I've never visited that state.

    Have you been to the State of Utah? Yes, I've driven through several times.

    I've visited forty-seven of the fifty states.

    In general, the current trend seems to be toward lighter use of both commas and capitalization (both elements of punctuation). So Blerg et al., your impulse to cut back on commas is probably the right move to keep your prose looking up to date. There are a couple situations where I used to consistently use commas but no longer do. And you have to practically hold me upside down and shake me to get a capital letter out of me. ;)

    Chicago gives this general guidance:

    Quote
    8.1 Chicago's preference for the "down" style
    Proper nouns are usually capitalized, as are some of the terms derived from or associated with proper nouns. For the latter, Chicago's preference is for sparing use of capitals--what is sometimes referred to as a "down" style. Although Brussels (the Belgian city) is capitalized, Chicago prefers brussels sprouts--which are not necessarily from Brussels (see 8.60). Likewise, President Obama is capitalized, but the president is not (see 8.18-32). (In certain nonacademic contexts--e.g., a press release--such terms as president may be capitalized.)
    « Last Edit: October 18, 2020, 03:58:50 pm by Becca Mills »

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #15 on: October 18, 2020, 06:10:14 pm »
    I haven't read Strunk & White in many years, but I recall it having some weirdness in among the good advice. Examples of "passive voice" that weren't actually passive? Something like that ...

    I've just spent an entertaining hour and a half searching on terms such as, "Elements of Style criticism", "Elements of Style mistakes" and similar. If you do the same, don't miss the comments on the blog posts. The differences of opinion and the depth of feeling about the book, and about english in general, is the literary equivalent of TechniColor.

    In the end I try to come down on the side of the reader and how they react. If someone complains that they are confused about a bit of writing, or don't understand it, then the fault lies with me the writer.  If you cannot get your point across to the reader then you have failed, no matter how grammatical the sentences might be.
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    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #16 on: October 18, 2020, 07:12:35 pm »
    I've just spent an entertaining hour and a half searching on terms such as, "Elements of Style criticism", "Elements of Style mistakes" and similar. If you do the same, don't miss the comments on the blog posts. The differences of opinion and the depth of feeling about the book, and about english in general, is the literary equivalent of TechniColor.

    In the end I try to come down on the side of the reader and how they react. If someone complains that they are confused about a bit of writing, or don't understand it, then the fault lies with me the writer.  If you cannot get your point across to the reader then you have failed, no matter how grammatical the sentences might be.

    Oh, yeah, absolutely. Something can be grammatically correct yet not at all clear. "Correct" and "good" are separate issues, really, and what works well varies tremendously from writing situation to another.

    Funny that Strunk & White is such a contentious subject!  ;D

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #17 on: October 19, 2020, 05:45:13 am »
    I haven't read Strunk & White in many years, but I recall it having some weirdness in among the good advice. Examples of "passive voice" that weren't actually passive? Something like that ...

    Decon, the rule I follow for titles is to capitalize when they're 1) short, 2) used right before someone's last name, 3) without intervening punctuation. When these three criteria are met, the title effectively becomes part of the person's name, as with Ms. Sanchez or Mr. Brown. So the rules you're using for "president" would apply to all other titles as well, but once the title gets too long to plausibly use as part of someone's name, then uppercasing the whole thing before the name is to be avoided:

    After shaking hands with the general, President Smith boarded the aircraft.
    > President is basically part of her name here.

    After shaking hands with the general, the president boarded the aircraft.
    > There's no name here, just a regular noun.

    After shaking hands with the general, the president, Barbara Smith, boarded the aircraft.
    > Because of the intervening punctuation, president is not part of her name here. Also, her first name is in there.

    After shaking hands with the scientist, Vice President of Research and Product Development Sam Washington boarded the aircraft.
    > I don't like the above sentence because while someone could plausibly say, "Hello, Vice President Washington," no one would plausibly say, "Hello, Vice President of Research and Product Development Sam Washington." The whole title is too long to be considered part of his name, so it's awkward. I'd rewrite to something like: After shaking hands with the scientist, the vice president of research and product development, Sam Washington, boarded the aircraft. or After shaking hands with the scientist, Sam Washington, who was vice president of research and product development, boarded the aircraft.

    The secretary of homeland security walked into the room.
    > Just a regular noun.

    The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security walked into the room.
    > Department of Homeland Security is a proper noun.

    In walked Secretary Johnson of Homeland Security.
    > Secretary is functioning as part of his name here, and Homeland Security is a proper noun.

    On state and states, here's what I do:

    I live in the United States.

    Have you been to the States recently? No, the flights are too expensive.

    Have you been to Rhode Island? No, I've never visited that state.

    Have you been to the State of Utah? Yes, I've driven through several times.

    I've visited forty-seven of the fifty states.

    In general, the current trend seems to be toward lighter use of both commas and capitalization (both elements of punctuation). So Blerg et al., your impulse to cut back on commas is probably the right move to keep your prose looking up to date. There are a couple situations where I used to consistently use commas but no longer do. And you have to practically hold me upside down and shake me to get a capital letter out of me. ;)

    Chicago gives this general guidance:

    Thanks for the clarity. Have now bookmarked the thread. I have a completed  WIP book and one two thirds completed. I can now go through both and edit for capitalization with a clearer mind. Really appreciated.


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    Offline Ken Rudisill

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #18 on: October 19, 2020, 06:15:21 am »
    I concur that regular crafting threads would be useful.

    As my current WIP is in large part a political thriller, many of the characters have titles. When to capitalize threw me, so I had to do some research. I don't think anyone has mentioned directly addressing characters yet in this thread.

    Capitalize when directly addressing someone.

    "Did you see the chancellor today?"
    vs
    "It's good to see you, Chancellor."

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    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #19 on: October 19, 2020, 05:43:34 pm »
    Thanks for the clarity. Have now bookmarked the thread. I have a completed  WIP book and one two thirds completed. I can now go through both and edit for capitalization with a clearer mind. Really appreciated.

    Your welcome! :)

    I concur that regular crafting threads would be useful.

    As my current WIP is in large part a political thriller, many of the characters have titles. When to capitalize threw me, so I had to do some research. I don't think anyone has mentioned directly addressing characters yet in this thread.

    Capitalize when directly addressing someone.

    "Did you see the chancellor today?"
    vs
    "It's good to see you, Chancellor."

    Good one! This one always catches me up, actually. In my books, people are sometimes addressed as "My Lord." I really want to lowercase it, but I think it probably should be capitalized ...

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #20 on: October 19, 2020, 05:46:03 pm »
    As someone who struggles with commas, this was REALLY helpful. Thank you!

    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: Craft: Commas and adjectives (coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives)
    « Reply #21 on: October 20, 2020, 02:31:53 pm »
    As someone who struggles with commas, this was REALLY helpful. Thank you!

    You're welcome! :)

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