Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Finally, a regular column for blogspace, an outlet for our geek. Okay, my geek ... I haven’t asked Craig about it, so maybe it’ll be just me writing. In that case, expect to hear a lot about words and grammar. I love learning about words and grammar, and I need to share what I learn with anyone who will listen. Or just anyone. Whether or not they listen.
So let’s get started!
Topic #1: Commas (Between Adjectives)
Oh, don’t pretend you’re bored by commas ... that you don’t want to know more. Commas are tricky little devils that beg for understanding—otherwise they can run rampant through your writing. They can turn you into a comma bomber, like someone I know in this office. And it isn’t me.
There is much to know about commas, but for now I’m going to limit myself to an invaluable little lesson I learned from the brilliant Frances Peck about how to figure out whether you need a comma between adjectives. If you are anything like me, you’d look at a sentence like this one (purposefully unpunctuated) and get a little anxious:
They are selling their blue pine table their damaged oak dresser their beloved shag carpet and their thick luxurious throw.
Would you put a comma between “blue” and “pine”? Between “damaged” and “oak”? Between “beloved” and “shag”? Between “thick” and “luxurious”?
I might have, pre-Frances. And I would have been 75% wrong.
The correct punctuation** for the sentence is:
They are selling their blue pine table, their damaged oak dresser, their beloved shag carpet, and their thick, luxurious throw.
Here are the tricks that helped me figure it out:
- Can you insert an “and” between the adjectives? If you can’t (e.g., you wouldn’t say “the blue and pine table”), you shouldn’t use a comma. In other words, the comma substitutes for “and,” as in “the thick, luxurious throw.”
- Can you rearrange the adjectives? If you can’t, you shouldn’t use a comma (e.g., you wouldn’t say “the pine blue table”).
To end in full geek glory, let me just add that beneath these tricks, there is a proper point of grammar: the decision about whether to use a comma between adjectives has to do with what kind of adjective you’re dealing with: coordinate or cumulative. In the sentence we used above, “thick” and “luxurious” function as coordinate adjectives (they all separately modify the same noun) while the others work in a cumulative way (they build and lean on each other).
That’s it for today. Don’t worry, Weekly Geek will be back. Soon. Like in a week.
**Assuming you’re using a serial comma, which is another topic (and a contentious one at that!). If you choose to use serial commas, as I do, you put a comma before the last item in a list.