While my focus is on developmental editing, I can’t help but do a sizeable amount of copyediting when going through a manuscript. One of the things I and many writers struggle with is the use of commas with a series of adjectives.
Here’s a guide to understanding the differences in comma usage with the two kinds of multiple-adjective use—the key is to understand the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives. This is from A Writer’s Reference:
Use a comma between coordinate adjectives not joined by and. Do not use a comma between cumulative adjectives.
When two or more adjectives each modify a noun separately, they are coordinate.
Mother has become a strong, confident, independent woman.
Adjectives are coordinate if they can be joined with and (strong and confident and independent) or if they can be scrambled (an independent, strong, confident woman).
Two or more adjectives that do not modify the noun separately are cumulative.
Three large gray shapes moved toward me.
Beginning with the adjective closes to the noun shapes, these modifiers lean on one another, piggyback style, with each modifying a larger word group. Gray modifies shapes, large modifies gray shapes, and three modifies large gray shapes. We cannot insert the word and between cumulative adjectives (three and large and gray shapes). Nor can we scramble them (gray three large shapes).For what it's worth.
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