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I'm having trouble deciding whether these are cumulative or coordinate adjectives.

There's nothing unusual to note about the context. The writer is describing a helicopter that looks a bit different from typical helicopters.

My gut told me these are cumulative adjectives, as they are adjectives of size, color and shape. But I'm not sure.

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    Size, colour, and shape are different qualities, thus the adjectives are cumulative. If adjectives are cumulative, don't put a comma between them. That would break up their cumulative effect! Commented Mar 21 at 14:31
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    I wish downvoters would be more careful. Most never had to learn English, probably.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 21 at 15:22
  • The choice is up to you. I saw a small white dog on the street. I saw a small, white dog on the street. Think about saying it and see how you feel about it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 21 at 15:24
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    Note, cumulative adjectives follow a certain order: yourdictionary.com/articles/cumulative-adjectives Commented Mar 21 at 16:12

2 Answers 2

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a small white oblong helicopter.

The absence of punctuation distinguishes this as the stacking of modifiers from coordination. There are three layers of modification:

"Helicopter" is modified by "oblong" to form the nominal "oblong helicopter". This is then modified by "white" to form the nominal "white oblong helicopter", and this in turn is modified by "small" give the meaning "white oblong helicopter that is small by the standards normally associated with white oblong ones".

By contrast, the inclusion of punctuation gives a coordination of adjectives with a somewhat different interpretation: "helicopter that is small, white and oblong".

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    Some context that might help: The writer originally wrote "a small, white, oblong helicopter," and I am trying to decide if I should change it to "a small white oblong helicopter."
    – mleo
    Commented Mar 21 at 16:04
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    @mleo I've added to my answer the meaning of the same sentence but with the adjectives separated by punctuation.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 21 at 16:22
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    The intended meaning is a helicopter that is small, white and oblong, not an oblong helicopter that is small and white or a white oblong helicopter that is small. So it sounds like commas would be the way to go here. @BillJ
    – mleo
    Commented Mar 21 at 16:24
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In "a small white oblong helicopter," the adjectives are being used cumulatively. They function by building on each other to further specify the noun. Each step in the adjective chain modifies the rest of the chain. You start with a helicopter and describe it as an "oblong helicopter". You then further describe the oblong helicopter as a "white [oblong helicopter]". If you are looking at a string of adjectives without commas, and it seems to be able to build in this manner and still have a reasonable meaning at every step, that's a good indication that the adjectives are being used cumulatively.

If you said "a small, white, oblong helicopter", they would be coordinate adjectives. In this case, each adjective would be functioning separately to describe the helicopter. This would be a perfectly grammatical usage of these adjectives, but it was not done here. If you're looking at a string of adjectives separated by commas, that's a good indication that the adjectives are being used in coordination.

Many sets of adjectives can be used either way, but each usage has rules that exclude certain cases. In this case, neither usage is prohibited, but they are functioning as cumulative adjectives.

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    It's not commas that make adjectives cumulative. Commented Mar 21 at 15:17
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    @MichaelHarvey The sentences function differently, but it's one way to identify which is being used. As the asker was asking about identification of an existing sentence, I focused on that rather than on the meaning of the sentences in the different constructions.
    – YonKuma
    Commented Mar 21 at 15:27
  • Some context that might help: The writer originally wrote "a small, white, oblong helicopter," and I am trying to decide if I should change it to "a small white oblong helicopter."
    – mleo
    Commented Mar 21 at 16:06
  • @mleo Both are grammatically acceptable in this case. The sentences function differently, but they could each describe the same helicopter. There's not necessarily a right or wrong in this case. A lot of it is down to how the writer wants their sentence to feel.
    – YonKuma
    Commented Mar 21 at 16:53
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    Thank you so much, @YonKuma. I'll go with the writer's preference.
    – mleo
    Commented Mar 21 at 17:16

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