Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Comma, No Comma?

This is an ongoing issue for me. I constantly read copy (either published by someone else, or passed to me in the office) in which someone else's judgment about the comma in the coordinate adjectives is different from mine. 

I find it hard to explain why I put them in and take them out. Especially when I am challenged.

Ian brought me a puzzle this morning.

The phrase:

tall, red boots

He and another copyeditor argued with the editor that the comma should be out:

tall red boots
But they couldn't explain why.

So, I'm going to be posting similar examples now and then, and ask for your vote.

Here's why I agree w/ Ian. But I can't find backup for this anywhere.

"Tall" is form; "red" is color. They are not coordinate, and therefore no comma.

What's your vote, and why?

And here, many other phrases I'm running across, and am wondering if I'm right.

a small stiff, flat base



I agree with you and Ian, too. My instincts tell me that it should absolutely be "tall red boots" as opposed to "tall, red boots"...but damned if I can explain WHY I think that.

As for "a small stiff, flat base," I kinda laughed when I saw it. "Small stiff" made me think of a little corpse. In this case, I think I'd rework it to say something like "a stiff, flat base that happened to be small"...which sounds awkward, too, and it's wordier, but "a small stiff, flat base" just doesn't seem right, either...

mighty red pen said...

What an interesting question -- I confess I had to look it up myself.

There's a good explanation at Grammarphobia: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2008/12/comma-sense.html

It has to do with with the weight the adjectives have with respect to the noun (coordinate adjectives). One way to tell is whether you can use the word "and" between the adjectives. If you can, they need a comma. If you can't, then you don't.

Grammarphile's comment made me laugh! IMO "small stiff flat base" is just way too many adjectives & I would order up a rewrite!

TootsNYC said...

I have always used that "and" rule as well, but it's not fool-proof. The moment I try to use it, some other example is brought up that doesn't apply.

cheery, rotund man = cheery and rotund
tall, red boots = tall and red.

I'll have to go look at that Grammarphobia thing. Thanks!

I'll have more as the days go by--I'm trying to rev up my blog a little more.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Why not 'small, stiff, flat base'?

'Tall red boots' because we are talking about red boots that happen to be tall rather than boots that happen to be red and tall (if you can see the difference).

But 'tall, red boots' would be acceptable if we were stressing the boots' redness as well as tallness. It's also more erotic, somehow (perhaps because it takes a fraction longer to read).

OK, that probably makes no sense. It makes sense in my head. It's been a long day.

TootsNYC said...

Somehow it ends up being a long day anytime I try to explain a solution for this conundrum.

if I just fly by my instincts, I'm happy--it's trying to codify it that immediately frazzles my mind and exhausts my body.

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