A newspaper columnist writes of visiting the “red, brick house” of an elderly aunt who had a “large, ugly wart.”
That comma between red and brick is as ugly as the wart, while the comma between large and ugly is just fine.
Aren’t those constructions the same? What’s going on here?
Many writers routinely, and incorrectly, place commas between all adjectives preceding nouns. But we correctly place commas only between adjectives that are equally important and offer similar kinds of information.
How do we verify that the adjectives are equal and similar? For one thing, we should be able to reverse them. We could say “an ugly and large wart,” but we wouldn’t say “a brick and red house.”
Do we have to reason this out? No. A little trick helps. Place the word and between the adjectives involved. If the result sounds odd, don’t use a comma. If it sounds OK, use the comma. This trick keeps us from using commas with such structures as “naïve young man” or “old gray mare.”
Does “red and brick house” sound weird? It does. So “red, brick house” is wrong, and “red brick house” is right.
Does “large and ugly wart” sound weird? It does not. So “large, ugly wart” is right, and “large ugly wart” is wrong.
• A beautiful, baby girl. A beautiful and baby girl? No. Skip the comma.
• A sad, silent assembly. A sad and silent assembly? Fine. Keep the comma.
We can also try the “reverse” test. A “baby and beautiful girl”? A “wool and old sweater”? No. We cannot reverse those adjectives, which shows they are not equal and similar and do not need a comma. But a “silent and sad assembly”? Or a “boring and long meeting”? Yes, those adjectives are reversible, showing they need a comma.
Does that elegant little squiggle really matter? It does. The commas in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have sustained a debate almost as old as the Bill of Rights. Some say the amendment gives all citizens the right to own and carry guns. Others say it allows limits to gun ownership. The U.S. Supreme Court may settle that argument soon when it delivers a decision regarding a Washington, D.C., gun-control law (District of Columbia v. Heller).
Why the amendment’s commas, and their placement? To simplify a complex argument, some say it’s because the framers were influenced by the schooling in Latin common at the time. Whatever the reason, the amendment is ambiguous in part because of its punctuation:
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Another common comma problem concerns two clauses joined with a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, so, or, yet). We place a comma before a conjunction when both clauses are independent (could stand alone as a sentence):
• I don’t try to do my maid’s job, and she doesn’t either.
We omit the comma, however, when joining independent and dependent clauses (two or more verbs have the same subject):
• He leaped onto the mule’s back and went nowhere fast.
Remember that the comma goes before the conjunction. Writers frequently place commas after “and” or “but” — especially when beginning a sentence — but that’s wrong unless the commas are punctuating something else:
Wrong: And, the president refused to listen.
Right: And the president refused to listen.
Right: But, according to the council, the president refused to listen.
In the final example, that first comma is not punctuating the conjunction but rather is one of a pair of commas surrounding the parenthetical insert “according to the council.”
Appositives also cause problems. We use commas to set off appositives (words that identify a preceding noun or pronoun) that aren’t essential but add parenthetical information:
• My husband, Paul, is going.
• Our dog, Pompi, is a toy poodle.
The key to the above treatment of appositives is that I have one husband and one dog; the identifications “Paul” and “Pompi” are not essential to the sentence’s meaning but add parenthetical information. If I had two dogs, however, identifying the animal would be essential, and there would be no comma:
• Doe’s novel, Dumbo, is about a nerdy misfit. (Doe has only one novel.)
• Doe’s novel Dumbo is about a nerdy misfit. (Doe has more than one novel.)
This discussion hardly exhausts the subject of commas, but it deals with some of the most common. As you’ve seen, even those are usually easily resolved. Just takes a little comma sense.