Punctuating Adjectives before a Noun

Punctuating Adjectives before a Noun
Some of the best writers in the English language will advise aspiring authors to avoid adjectives as much as possible when aiming for a clear and elegant writing style. The argument runs that the right noun can stand alone, whereas a noun that is almost right will require modification with one or more adjectives. There is certainly value in this advice. A long string of adjectives before a noun can come across as verbose, awkward and, paradoxically, imprecise, so it is always a good idea to give serious thought to whether adjectives are truly necessary to communicate a concept successfully and then to eliminate any modifiers that are not essential. Yet there are times when the perfect noun is nonexistent or at least not forthcoming, and therefore when adjectives are necessary to convey an author’s meaning.
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Academic and scientific writing is rife with the kind of complexities and subtleties that tend to require precise and detailed descriptions, so it is hardly surprising that scholars often need to use adjectives to express exactly what they mean. As highly educated professional researchers and authors, they also need to produce text that is clear, correct and authoritative, so there is little room for errors or inconsistencies. This means that those adjectives must not only be chosen with care, but also punctuated effectively, and it can prove surprisingly tricky to set commas in the right places when it comes to strings of adjectives – so tricky in fact that research into the topic will reveal several different strategies and a wide variety of terminology that may or may not prove helpful. In addition, the type of text, the guidelines being followed and the preferences of the author can make a difference, so commas are often kept to a bare minimum in technical writing, and some scholarly authors tend to use no commas at all between adjectives.

For those authors who would like to punctuate their adjectives, however, the first step is to determine whether the adjectives that appear before a noun are coordinate or non-coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are equal as modifiers of a noun, so neither is subordinate to the other, and when two coordinate adjectives appear in a row, a comma should be used between them. Let us say, for instance, that an author wants to punctuate the adjectives modifying ‘shovel’ in this sentence: ‘The third trial tested the strength of the long slender sand shovel.’ To determine whether the adjectives are coordinate or not, write the adjectives in the reverse order (the sand slender long shovel) or add the word ‘and’ between each pair (the long and slender and sand shovel). In both cases, ‘long’ and ‘slender’ still make sense, though the wording is certainly less elegant than the original, but ‘sand’ does not work at all. This means that ‘long’ and ‘slender’ are coordinate adjectives, whereas ‘slender’ and ‘sand’ are non-coordinate, so a comma should appear between the first pair, but not between the second pair: ‘The third trial tested the strength of the long, slender sand shovel.’

This simple test will resolve most questions about adding commas to strings of adjectives, and also applies when the same adjective is repeated before a noun, as it is ‘many, many researchers visit the library every day.’ Remember whenever you are punctuating adjectives before a noun not to overdo it by punctuating between all the adjectives without ensuring their coordinate status, and never to use a comma between the final adjective and the noun itself.

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