I'm currently working through a grammar textbook and have come across something that's got me a little confused. As far as I know, you must place a comma between two coordinating adjectives. However, looking at some of the examples given in the book, there are no commas used where I feel like there should be.

For example:

The dirty old wallpaper covered the cracked wall.

According to what I've been told about spotting coordinating and cumulative adjectives, I feel as though this sentence requires commas. The sentence makes sense with 'and' placed between the adjectives (at least if the adjectives are reversed), and the sentence makes sense with the adjectives reversed.

Here are a few more examples from the book (again, without the use of commas):

The large dappled horse won the race.

Shouldn't this be: The large, dappled horse won the race.

Small brown deer filled the ancient forest.

Shouldn't this be: Small, brown deer filled the ancient forest.

Any clarification on this subject would be appreciated. It seems like such a simple topic, but it's making me want to slam my head against a wall!



1 Answer 1


Cumulative versus coordinate adjectives: [this explanation is good for your purposes].

The comma rule comes down to the difference between two kinds of adjectives: coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are adjectives in a row that each separately modify the noun that follows (1), as in “heavy, bulky box.” Both “heavy” and “bulky” modify “box.” You can even rearrange the adjectives and say, “bulky, heavy box.”

Cumulative adjectives, on the other hand, don’t separately modify the noun that follows even though they are all stacked up before the noun too (2). Instead, the adjective right before the noun pairs with the noun as a unit, and then adjective before that unit modifies that. An example will make this more clear: In the phrase “exquisite custom houseboat,” “custom” modifies “houseboat”—they become a unit—and then “exquisite” modifies “custom houseboat.”

From Quickanddirtytips.com

dirty old is a cliché where the two adjectives are considered a single unit: dirty old man being one example but a dirty old [anything] works. Dirty old socks, dirty old wallpaper. It works with just about anything.

Another double adjective cliché is: silly old or stupid old. So, a silly, old woman becomes: silly old woman, even though an intelligent, old woman would take a comma. "Turn off that stupid old tape!".

dappled horse and brown deer (as animal types) could be viewed as going together with their respective adjectives, so if you add large or small in front of them, that would, in that view, make only one adjective and, therefore, no comma would be required.

  • Brown deer and dappled horse can be seen as types.
    – Lambie
    Apr 26, 2018 at 22:06

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