Comma use with adjectives and quotations

We’ve already touched on the topics of comma use with adjectives and with quotations, in the post on the Oxford or serial comma and in the post on mechanical error with quotations.

The items in a series can be many different parts of speech or grammatical units (phrases and clauses, as well as words). But adjectives are often presented in a series, as in the sentence, The colors of the US flag are red, white, and blue.

A comma is used between two or more adjectives when they modify the same word equally and when they are not connected by a conjunction. These are call coordinate adjectives.

Sue’s scratched and dented car is an eyesore, but it gets her to work. (no comma, and used)

She dreams of a sleek, shiny car. (sentences from English 3200)

Here are more examples of coordinate adjectives:

The huge, restless crowd waited for the concert to begin.

(Both huge and restless modify crowd.)

The audience cheered happily when the pulsating, rhythmic music filled the stadium.

(Both pulsating and rhythmic modify music.)

The long, twisty, muddy road led to a shack in the woods. (from The Everyday Writer 199)

(Long and twisty and muddy all modify road.)

Some adjectives are not coordinate, but are cumulative, meaning that the words they modify build.

The concert featured several new bands

(New modifies band; several modifies new bands.)

Each had a distinctive musical style.

(Musical modifies style; distinctive modifies musical)

You can check to see if the adjectives are coordinate or noncoordinate (cumulative) by asking two questions:

Can the order of the adjectives be reversed without changing the meaning or creating nonsense?

Can the word and be inserted between the adjectives?

NO: The concert featured new and several bands.

(Only several new makes sense.)

YES: The restless, huge crowd waited for the concert to begin.

NO: The concert featured new and several bands.

YES: The huge and restless crowd waited for the concert to begin.

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then the adjectives are coordinate and you need a comma between them. (Above examples and “test” from Little, Brown 438-39.)

Commas also are used to set off most quotations.

As we saw in the earlier blog on quotation marks and punctuation, a comma precedes a direct quotation: Mary said, “I am ready.”

A statement in dialogue would be written like this: “I am ready,” Mary said.

An indirect quotation, one that does not use the speaker’s exact words, would not use a comma:

Compare The referee asked if we were ready. (indirect quote) with The referee asked, “Are you ready?” (direct quote).

A comma is not used with you introduce a quotation with the word that:

The writer of Ecclesiastes concludes that “all is vanity.”

A comma is not used after a quotation that contains a question mark or exclamation point.

“What’s a thousand dollars?” asks Groucho Marks in the movie Cocoanuts.

“Out, out damned spot!” cries Lady Macbeth. (from The Everyday Writer 202)

Confusing the use of commas with adjectives and quotations can produce common errors, but some thought and reference to “tests” or to style books can help clarify your understanding and present the best document possible to your readers.

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