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I've got long, straight, black hair.

I've got long, straight black hair.

I've got long straight black hair.

Which version is the best? Is the adjective order correct?

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  • There are apparently hundreds of written instances of long straight black hair in Google Books. Most don't have any commas at all, but quite a few have one comma after the first adjective. Both of those versions seem fine to me, though personally I'd go with the majority, and I think two commas looks a bit "ponderous" (heavy, weighty, "ploddy"). But it's just a style issue (as is the adjective sequence, but idiomatically your version is definitely the one to be preferred). Dec 10, 2016 at 15:42
  • @user46036 "long, straight, black, hair" would not be correct in list since "hair" would then be considered another adjective in that case.
    – Peter
    Dec 10, 2016 at 15:56
  • @user46036: Artificial, ponderous, clunky, clumsy. Call it what you will. Using two commas is not "invalid", but most writers would avoid making that particular stylistic choice today. Note that using three commas is unquestionably incorrect, nothing to do with "style". Dec 10, 2016 at 15:56
  • This is what I learned about commas, would be interesting to see a reference for the "stylistic choice today", always willing to learn.
    – Peter
    Dec 10, 2016 at 16:03
  • I've got long, straight black hair. Why is this version correct? Why not two commas?
    – user46036
    Dec 10, 2016 at 16:15

5 Answers 5

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Adjective order generally follows a fairly rigid rule based on the type of adjective, as Mark Forsyth, author of the book The Elements of Eloquence, has written:

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun.... if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

http://www.npr.org/2016/09/08/493157931/bbc-editor-highlights-often-overlooked-english-language-rule

(although there are exceptions, of course)

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160908-the-language-rules-we-know-but-dont-know-we-know

So in terms of the word order alone, long straight black is fine.

(Now, in this particular case, there could be an exception if the user intended to really emphasize that the hair was straight hair, as opposed to, say, curly hair, in which case either straight long black hair or long black straight hair could occur. But, again, use of either of these would probably be less typical than the order proposed in the original question.)


As for whether to use commas, and if using them, where to place them--

The general rule is that commas should be used to separate two or more adjectives that independently modify a noun. In more technical terms, commas are used between two or more "coordinate" adjectives that modify the same noun--"co-ordinate" in that they equally/independently modify the noun.

You can test for whether the adjectives are coordinate by asking:

(1) Does the sentence still make sense if the word "and" is inserted between the two adjectives in question?

(2) Does the sentence still make sense if the order of the adjectives in question is switched?

For example:

This is a difficult, perplexing question.

The sentence would still make sense if we switched it to either

  • This is a difficult and perplexing question.

or

  • This is a perplexing, difficult question.

So here the adjectives are independently modifying the noun (that is to say, they are coordinate adjectives), which means that using a comma is correct.

By contrast:

She had a new mobile phone.

If we switch it to She had a mobile new phone or She had a new and mobile phone, the meaning would be completely different. So in this case, the adjectives are NOT coordinate adjectives, and a comma should NOT be used. We cannot separate "mobile" from "phone" because the "mobile phone" forms a unit that "new" is modifying. Similarly, in the expression a Greek Orthodox priest, "Greek Orthodox" forms a unit that we cannot separate or change the order of; so no comma can be used between "Greek" and "Orthodox."

The situation with long straight black hair is a little more complicated. It would not necessarily be incorrect to include one or two commas in this list of adjectives (as either "long, straight, black hair" or "long, straight black hair"), but in this particular situation, it is largely a matter of personal stylistic preference.

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  • Excellent answer. I didn't know about the "add and or switch order" test for adjectives, but it really makes sense.
    – Andrew
    Jan 21, 2017 at 17:57
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"Long, straight, black hair" would be correct in this instance due to the way a series of consecutive adjectives must be punctuated; a good way to determine this is if you would consider "long straight" one descriptor, or if you would say "long AND straight". If it would require an "and" to clarify the meaning, then a comma is needed.

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With or without the commas, it's unambiguous and completely understandable. In such a simple, unambiguous sentence it's almost more readable without the commas though.

This is because both "long", "straight", and "black" apply to the noun "hair" equally, regardless of order.

Think about it this way: Would it mean something else if you were to say

"The hair is long and straight, but also black",

or

"The hair is black and straight, but also long"?

No matter the order, it all adds up to "long straight black hair"

Commas often help to reduce ambiguity in how a sentence is interpreted, and it just isn't needed (nor is it harmful) in this case.

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Personally I like the two comma version the best, of the ones given. Coordinating adjectives, which these are, should be separated by commas. Also, it coincides with normal conversational rhythm.

However, the use of the word "got" implies a more colloquial rendition, so I would not be totally against the non-comma version.

I would leave out the redundant "got" and just say "I have long, straight, black hair."

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My two cents: If ‘and’ is not used, then there is no need for a comma when the adjectives precede the noun.

She had long frizzy blond hair.

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