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  • Writer's pictureKate Armstrong

Grammar Tip: When do I need to punctuate a series of adjectives?

Whoo boy, there's nothing quite like proofreading to make you question every grammar rule you thought you knew. The grammar rule I look up more than any other is how to punctuate a series of adjectives. In case you struggle with the same thing, here's a cheat sheet:

1. If two adjectives work together as a single adjective and precede the noun they’re modifying, they constitute a “compound modifier,” and they need to be hyphenated.

Example 1: She yawned with bone-deep exhaustion.

Example 2: Eventually, Al Capone went to jail for white-collar crimes.

We’re not talking about bone exhaustion and deep exhaustion, or white crimes and collar crimes, we’re talking about bone-deep exhaustion and white-collar crimes. The adjectives only work if they’re a unit.

Plus, without the hyphen, readers might wonder what a “collar crime” is.

2. If those same two adjectives follow the noun, they don’t need to be hyphenated.

Example 1: Her exhaustion was bone deep.

Example 2: The crimes Al Capone went to jail for were white collar.

3. If two adjectives precede a noun, and both adjectives describe the noun equally and independently of one another, they’re called “coordinate adjectives” and you include a comma between them.

Example 1: I went for a long, grueling run.

You use the comma here because you could also write, “I went for a grueling, long run” without changing the meaning.

Another trick here is that you could add “and” between the adjectives and it wouldn’t change the meaning: “I went for a long and grueling run.”

Example 2: She showed off her shiny, new diamond.

You can swap them: “She showed off her new, shiny diamond." And the "and test" works: “She showed off her shiny and new diamond.”)

4. If your modifier consists of an adverb and an adjective, you don’t need a comma or a hyphen.

Example 1: I could barely look at the badly swollen injury.

Example 2: The test included a particularly challenging question.

5. Bonus Tip: There’s another category of adjectives called “cumulative adjectives.” Cumulative adjectives aren’t working as a unit, but they have to be used in a particular order. They don’t require a hyphen or a comma between them.

Example: The box includes twelve colorful crayons.

The “and” test doesn’t work: “The box includes twelve and colorful crayons.” Neither does changing the order: “The box includes colorful, twelve crayons.” It's a no-go for the hyphen as well: “The box includes twelve-colorful crayons.” Thus, this is a cumulative adjective and you get to give the comma and hyphen a break.

The most important rule for all of this is: Can a reader be confused about my meaning if I don’t include a hyphen or a comma? Is there a chance that they’ll link a modifier to the wrong noun? If the answer is yes, use punctuation. Here’s a classic example: “Look at that man eating chicken!” versus “Look at that man-eating chicken!” If you're concerned there's wiggle room for your man eating chicken to become a man-eating chicken, punctuate. 😊

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