Make sure your train cars are connected with commas!

Now we’ve come to a little discussed comma usage that I bet you’ve rarely, if ever, thought about: using a comma to separate two coordinating adjectives that modify the same noun.

Now without using industry jargon, that simply means you use a comma to separate two descriptive words that are referring to the same thing. Think of it as train cars. All of the cars in the middle of the train – freight, passenger, whatever – come before the caboose and can be moved around in any order without affecting the train as a whole. But what happens if you move the caboose? Don’t do it! That could spell disaster! And those middle cars are linked, right? It’s the same with your coordinating adjectives: they are linked by commas.

Here’s an example:

Sam spent half the morning checking the connections between the many, old, rundown cars before the noon train left the station.

Many and old are the coordinating adjectives in this sentence. How can you tell? And why not rundown? There are two tests you can use to determine what adjectives are the coordinating adjectives.

First, if you can replace the comma with and, then you’ve found your coordinating conjunctions. Easy, right? Try the sentence written this way:

Sam spent half the morning checking the connections between the many and old rundown cars before the noon train left the station.

It still sounds the same right? Bam! You have coordinating adjectives and can use a comma. You don’t have to obviously, but it sure sounds better. Less is always more!

Second, try moving the adjectives around in a different order. If it still makes sense and still means the same thing, then you’ve found you’re coordinating adjectives. Too easy! Try this sentence:

Sam spent half the morning checking the connections between the old, many rundown cars before the noon train left the station.

While it’s not quite as graceful, we haven’t changed the meaning of the sentence at all. So again, there’s our coordinating adjectives. But just for fun, what happens if we put and between rundown and cars? Rundown is acting as an adjective in this case. So why is there no comma? Let’s try adding and:

Sam spent half the morning checking the connections between the old, many rundown and cars. 

Sounds pretty crazy! Now let’s move the adjectives around:

Sam spent half the morning checking the connections between the old, many cars rundown. 

What?!

Too much fun. This is why I love being an editor. Words are so much fun! With any luck, maybe these tests will help you remember that you need a comma to separate coordinating adjectives and where to put it.

Write on!

 

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