Commas between coordinate adjectives

One of the most common things I change in the articles I’m editing is demonstrated in sentences like this: “The menu includes a delicious, macadamia-crusted sea bass and a selection of seasonal, red wines.”

If you don’t see an error in there, don’t feel bad. Depending on how you look at it, there may not be one. But on my watch, those commas are just not okay.

A basic guideline for commas is that they should be used between “noncoordinate adjectives.” The quickest way to get a handle on noncoordinate is to think about coordinating conjunctions, specifically the coordinating conjunction “and.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to remember this rough guideline: if the word “and” works well between the adjectives, you can put a comma between them. If it doesn’t, don’t.

So we can apply that to our sentence above by trying “and” in place of those commas. Does it make sense to call the dish “a delicious and macadamia-crusted sea bass”? Does it seem right to say “a selection of seasonal and red wines”? I don’t think so.

Another test to tell whether your adjectives qualify as “coordinate” or not is to try moving them around. Coordinate adjectives, because they all modify the noun in the same way, can go anywhere. Think about “a fast, easy, fun hike.” That’s a hike that’s fast and easy and fun, right? And it’s just as logical to say it’s an easy and fun and fast hike.

It doesn’t work the same way with our original example. A macadamia-crusted delicious sea bass doesn’t say quite the same thing as a delicious macadamia-crusted sea bass. It’s as though “macadamia-crusted” is integral to “sea bass” in a way that “delicious” is not.

Ditto that for “red seasonal wines.” Red wine is a thing. Seasonal is just a word we’re using to throw some added description on top of this well-known thing. So seasonal red wines seems different from red seasonal wines.

The choice isn't always clear. For example, “a seasonal local wine” could in fact be a “local seasonal wine.” And the good news is that you do have the leeway to go with your own judgment in these situations.

But when in doubt, just apply the “and” rule. Whenever “and” sounds a little off between two adjectives: no comma.

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