Editors are trained to provide explanations for substantive changes they make to a writer’s text. “It just sounds better” is not a convincing argument. And yet editors do often use their ears to decide whether to make changes. For instance, while there are guidelines to help us determine if a comma is needed between multiple adjectives preceding a noun, we must ultimately ask ourselves if the comma “sounds” right.
Consider this passage from the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles:
Our breakfast table was cleared early, and Holmes waited in his dressing-gown for the promised interview. Our clients were punctual to their appointment, for the clock had just struck ten when Dr Mortimer was shown up, followed by the young baronet. The latter was a small, alert, dark-eyed man about thirty years of age, very sturdily built, with thick black eyebrows and a strong, pugnacious face. He wore a ruddy-tinted tweed suit and had the weather-beaten appearance of one who has spent most of his time in the open air, and yet there was something in his steady eye and the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman. (Doyle 41; emphasis mine)
Why are there commas in “a small, alert, dark-eyed man” and “a strong, pugnacious face” but not in “thick black eyebrows” or “ruddy-tinted tweed suit”?
In the phrases with commas, the adjectives each describe the noun—and only the noun—that follows. “Small” and “alert” and “dark-eyed” each describe “man.” “Strong” and “pugnacious” each describe “face.” In the phrases without commas, however, the first adjective describes the unit formed by the second adjective and the noun. That is, “thick” describes “black eyebrows” and “ruddy-tinted” describes “tweed suit.”
Adjectives that precede the noun they describe and are separated by commas are called “coordinate adjectives.” How can you tell when adjectives are coordinate?
Style and usage guides such as Claire Cook’s Line by Line (111) and The Chicago Manual of Style (“Commas”) suggest a simple test: try replacing the comma with and or reversing the order of the adjectives; if the resulting phrase sounds idiomatic, the adjectives are coordinate and thus require a comma between them. If the phrase sounds odd, the adjectives are not coordinate and thus no comma should appear.
Let’s apply the test to our passage. The description “a small and alert and dark-eyed man” is acceptable (albeit a little wordy) and “a small, dark-eyed, alert man” works too. Both “a strong and pugnacious face” and “a pugnacious, strong face” sound fine. But if we change “thick black eyebrows” to “thick and black eyebrows” or “black, thick eyebrows,” the results are awkward, as are the phrases “ruddy-tinted and tweed suit,” and “tweed, ruddy-tinted suit.”
And here’s a tip from Cook: “Adjectives denoting color, age, size, or material are rarely coordinate with other adjectives” (111). This tip provides another reason that no comma is used in “thick black eyebrows” (a color is named) or “ruddy-tinted tweed suit” (a color and a material are named). “Small, alert, dark-eyed man,” which contains an adjective denoting size, is an exception. A comma is needed after “small” since it describes “man” and not “alert, dark-eyed man.”
So if you find yourself furrowing your eyebrows, of whatever shape or color, when trying to punctuate multiple adjectives that precede a noun, use the coordinate adjective test, and—like Sherlock—you will soon find the solution to the problem.
“Commas with Coordinate Adjectives.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., sec. 6.36, U of Chicago P, 2017, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/book/ed17/part2/ch06/psec036.html.
Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, Macmillan Collector’s Library, 2016, pp. 9–208.