2

Suppose that we have a simple sentence: "Our family lives in an old derelict house."
Do we need to put a comma between the adjectives "old" and "derelict"? I would be glad if someone explains me the appropriate rule for this case.

2
  • I think not. I think you can use one if you are trying to make your reader say it with the comma. We saw an old derelict house on that street. We arrived at the old, derelict house at the end of the twisted path. I cannot explain the rule. – WRX Mar 30 '17 at 15:10
  • Alex - You shouldn't accept an answer so fast. – J.R. Mar 30 '17 at 17:20
3

The conventional rule is that if two adjectives both modify the noun, then you put a comma between them. But if an adjective modifies the following adjective, you do not put a comma between them.

For example:

It is an old, woman's hat.

This is a hat that is old, and that is for a woman. The hat is old. The age of the woman is unspecified. You could have an old hat for a young woman.

It is an old woman's hat.

This is a hat that is for an old woman. That is, it is the woman that is old, not the hat. You could have a new hat for an old woman.

However, even in the first case, where both adjectives modify the noun, if there is unlikely to be confusion the comma is often left out.

So I think technically, you should say "a derelict, old house". But if you omit the comma, it doesn't make sense to say that the oldness is derelict, so there's no ambiguity in saying "a derelict old house".

2

In this case, you will be well understood with or without the comma.

However, the adjective order would seem more natural if you wrote derelict old house without a comma OR used a comma (old, derelict house).

The comma creates a slight pause in reading and can be helpful when putting the adjectives in a nonstandard order, which you might want to do if you're trying to emphasize one aspect over another or show closer connection between this sentence and one before or after it that emphasizes the closer attribute. For example (fiction):

Our community was settled hundreds of years ago, and little has been updated since. Our family lives in an old, derelict house. Half its shutters are missing and the front door swings in the breeze, barely attached by half a hinge.

Adjective order is not that easy and is somewhat flexible. This unsourced answer clearly puts quality before age, while this sourced answer does not have an explicit category for "quality" but puts judgment/attitude adjectives before age, with an explicit example of a rustic old ... cottage. Having a derelict old house is a straightforward application of the example.


Grammar Girl explains the rule as a difference between cumulative and coordinate adjectives, where cumulative adjectives modify the noun to form a new concept which is then modified by the adjective before to further modify the concept. In the case of cumulative adjectives, the comma is omitted.

5
  • Wgat about "and"? An old and derelict house? – SovereignSun Mar 30 '17 at 15:46
  • @SovereignSun That is also an option, which puts even more separation between the adjectives and emphasizes them distinctly, which seems less appropriate in a case where the author may intend to imply that the two attributes are related to each other. – WBT Mar 30 '17 at 15:50
  • I agree that the comma is optional here. Insofar as order goes, I think old should come before derelict in this case (partly because of how age might influences the degree to which something is "derelict"), whereas with I'd probably reverse the order in charming old house. As for that bit about the pause, I don't think that's good guidance as to why a comma should be omitted or included. Lastly, the OP asked for an appropriate rule; I think Grammar Girl explains this one pretty well. – J.R. Mar 30 '17 at 17:17
  • @JR As a native speaker, "derelict old house" flows more smoothly than the opposite adjective order for the same reason as in "charming old house." I think the pause test is appropriate guidance, and it's what I received from several instructors over several years. Thanks for the link. – WBT Mar 30 '17 at 17:32
  • @WBT - I've heard the pause test, too, but then I've read some pretty sharp criticism of it in recent years. If you Google commas pause myth you'll find some interesting results. – J.R. Mar 30 '17 at 18:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.