to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iranˈs nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful.

As I see, in the noun phrase a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution, all the three adjectives describing the head noun are coordinate. Then, shouldn't there be commas between them making it look like a mutually-agreed, long-term,/and comprehensive solution? Is putting a comma between coordinate adjectives a must? If so, what has happened here?

Links for further study are most welcomed:)

  • Coordinate adjectives must be separated by commas. That much I'm sure of. Cumulative adjectives are not separated by commas. What I think is happening in this sentence, is that long-winded hyphenated adjectives are confusing us. In reality, the phrase is one long compound noun: A comprehensive solution, a long-term solution, a mutually-agreed solution - all bound together to create a long compound noun formed with cumulative adjectives.
    – JMB
    Feb 5, 2014 at 22:34

1 Answer 1


There's a quick way to tell the difference between coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. If you can rearrange the adjectives without changing the meaning of the phrase, you've got coordinate adjectives, and you must use commas. If you can't rearrange them without changing the meaning of the phrase, you've got cumulative adjectives, and you shouldn't use commas.

Grammar Girl has a convenient set of examples that I'll reproduce here:

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.”

"Bulky, heavy box" and "heavy, bulky box" mean the same thing as each other: the box is both bulky and heavy.

In the phrase “exquisite custom houseboat,” “custom” modifies “houseboat”—they become a unit—and then “exquisite” modifies “custom houseboat.”

To say "exquisite custom houseboat" means that you want to buy a custom houseboat, and to make sure that it's exquisite. If you reversed them - "custom exquisite houseboat" - it would mean that your first thought is for buying an exquisite houseboat, and then also you want it to be custom.

That is what is happening in your sentence. The speakers don't just want to reach a solution that is comprehensive, long-term, and mutually-agreed. They want to reach:

  • a [comprehensive solution] that is long-term and mutually-agreed
  • a [long-term comprehensive solution] that is mutually-agreed
  • a [mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution]

I'm not sure if that way of breaking it down makes sense or not. Basically, what happens is the adjective closest to the noun sort of fuses with it to become one noun-unit that the other adjective describes. But then that happens again with the next adjective - it fuses with the adj-noun unit to become a superunit, which the third adjective finally describes.

So you don't need the commas because "long-term comprehensive solution" is one "unit", which "mutually-agreed" is describing. It's the same as how you don't need a comma in "the fuzzy green tennis ball" (or "the exquisite custom houseboat").

  • 1
    +1 The first time I read it, I read it as "a comprehensive solution that is mutually-agreed in long-term". However, I couldn't come up with a good way to explain why as nicely as you just did. Feb 6, 2014 at 14:46
  • nice explanation but I modestly feel it does not matter which adjective in this NP comes first. What counts the most is reaching a solution which should be at the same time mutually-agreed, comprehensive and long-term. In the way you say , which I think is interesting, comprehensive is more important than long-term, and long-term matters more than mutually-agreed. Perhaps my feeling is not right since you know English of course better than do I.
    – Juya
    Feb 6, 2014 at 19:27
  • 1
    @Juya You're absolutely correct that that phrase fails the "rearrange test". However, since the writer chose not to use commas, we can infer that they felt that the adjectives were cumulative. So while you and I might think the adjectives can be rearranged and are of equal importance, the writer of the sentence didn't - or else they would have used the commas to make it clear that they were interchangeable.
    – hairboat
    Feb 6, 2014 at 19:50

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