Long ago, when I was a very new graduate student in English, I worried sometimes that I might embarrass myself by committing some error in grammar or usage. I knew that I had a pretty solid understanding of the rules, but back then there were still a couple of points that left me feeling insecure.
One of these points was whether or not I should put a comma between adjectives in such phrases as "a tall red-haired man" or "her own special place." I believe that many otherwise good writers still have some trouble with such phrases, and the purpose of this article is to provide an explanation of when a comma should not be used to separate two or more adjectives in a sequence.
We must have a shared vocabulary in order to discuss matters of usage, so at the risk of boring some of you, I am going to define, as simply and clearly as I can, certain grammatical terms that we simply cannot do without.
To explain why you sometimes don't need a comma between consecutive adjectives, I must first explain the difference between coordinate and hierarchical modifiers.
Elements in a sentence are coordinate if they are of equal grammatical rank and serve the same function in the sentence.
Coordinate elements are joined by coordinators. There are two types of coordinators: correlatives (either-or, neither-nor, not only-but also, both-and) and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, yet, so).
NOTE: The only coordinator that matters for our study of coordinate and non-coordinate modifiers is the coordinating conjunction and.
When a noun is modified by two or more adjectives, those adjectives are usually coordinate--i.e., they have the same grammatical rank and serve the same function in the sentence:
~the tall, muscular hero
~the lost, frightened child
~the strange, mysterious visitor
In each of these examples, both adjectives modify the noun at the same level: the tall hero--the muscular hero; the lost child--the frightened child; the strange visitor--the mysterious visitor.
There are two ways of showing that the adjectives in these examples are truly coordinate. One would be to use and rather than a comma between the two adjectives:
~the tall and muscular hero
~the lost andfrightened child
~the strange and mysterious visitor
Another test is to rearrange the adjectives:
~the muscular, tall hero
~the frightened, lost child
~the mysterious, strange visitor
Although in such familiar phrases we are accustomed to a certain order (e.g., "the tall, muscular hero"; "the lost, frightened child"; "the strange, mysterious visitor"), a native speaker of English would not find the reversed order impossible.
Modifiers that are not of equal grammatical rank and that do not bear the same relationship to the modified word are called hierarchical modifiers. All this means is that the modifiers have different ranks (i.e., they exist in a hierarchy).
Take, for example, the following phrase:
~a good old-fashioned pre-Madison Avenue Christmas
We could not substitute and for the commas without setting off the native speaker's "No way!" alarm:
~a good and old-fashioned and pre-Madison Avenue Christmas
But that alarm would ring far more loudly if we tried to alter the order of the adjectives:
~ an old-fashioned good pre-Madison Avenue Christmas
~a good pre-Madison Avenue old-fashioned Christmas
~a pre-Madison Avenue old-fashioned good Christmas
The three adjectives in this phrase are not coordinate, because they don't modify the noun ("Christmas") at an equal level. In fact, "good" modifies not "Christmas," but rather the entire phrase "old-fashioned pre-Madison Avenue Christmas." Similarly, "old-fashioned" actually modifies "pre-Madison Avenue Christmas" rather than just "Christmas."
Only "pre-Madison Avenue" directly modifies the noun "Christmas." Thus, there are levels, or ranks, of modification going on, and that is why such modifiers are called "hierarchical" rather than "coordinate."
Let's look at another example:
~her own special place
TEST 1:~her own and special place
TEST 2:~her special own place
Since both of these tests ring our "No way!" alarm, these are not coordinate adjectives, and therefore no comma should be used between them.
Try this one:
~a tall red-haired man
TEST 1:~a tall and red-haired man
TEST 2: ~a red-haired tall man
The "and" test does not ring our alarm loudly enough to discount the possibility that the adjectives are coordinate. The second test does make the phrase sound less natural, but notice that this example is not as clear as the "Christmas" and the "special place" examples.
It is possible that a writer might want to describe the hair color of a tall man in a way that gives equal weight to both his height and his hair color. Generally, one would not use a comma between the two modifiers in this phrase, but if a writer did choose to do so, he would not be wrong. There would be a subtle difference in emphasis, however, and serious writers care about such differences.
~a tall red-haired man
~a tall, red-haired man
In other words, a writer should only use the comma in this phrase if he wants the slightly different effect the comma would create. The "Christmas" example and the "special place" example do not offer this option.
Even if you don't entirely understand the technical terms used in this explanation, the tests for coordination are simple enough to apply. Since the comma between coordinate modifiers "replaces" the "and," non-coordinate (hierarchical) modifiers do not need to be separated by a comma. All you have to do is to try rearranging the modifiers or joining them with "and." If the tests ring your "No way!" alarm, then you should leave out the comma between the modifiers.