Grammar Gremlins: Punctuating Adjectives

Yes, sometimes adjectives do need punctuation, a comma here, a hyphen there. It’s not gremlin-2always easy to know when those are needed, or why, so I went hunting through the index of The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers.


Multiple adjectives, which may or may not need commas, actually have grammatical designations. If I ever knew that, I’d long since forgotten, but here they are:


Coordinate adjectives share an equal relationship to the noun they modify. In other words, each adjective modifies the noun, but neither modifies the other adjective. These are the adjectives that need to be separated by commas.


The concert pianist had long, elegant fingers.

The romance author was an intelligent, educated woman.


In a pair of noncoordinate adjectives, the first adjective modifies the second adjective as well as the noun. In this case, no comma is needed.


The wall was covered with dark red paint.

Last Tuesday was the first cold day of the winter.


Compound modifiers are the ones with the hyphens. Unfortunately the discussion of these runs to ten pages in the Handbook. To put it as simply as possible, two or more words that modify a noun when taken together—but not individually—should generally be hyphenated when placed before the noun:


We live on a wide, tree-lined street.

Joey is only a twelve-year-old child.

He was a well-educated man.

It was a spur-of-the-moment plan.


Whether or not the compound modifier needs to be hyphenated after the noun seems to be variable, dependent on just how tightly descriptive the phrase is.


Our street is wide and tree-lined.

Joey is only twelve years old.

Sam was certainly well educated.

We made the plan on the spur of the moment.


Finally, sometimes a hyphen is needed for clarity: a graphic art exhibition might well gremlin-3feature erotica, while a graphic-art exhibition is probably a design show. If your hero possesses a ring with a hidden poison capsule, is it a secret compartment ring (the compartment is secret, but the ring is on his finger at all times) or a secret compartment ring (the whole ring is a secret, hidden on a shelf behind a book of poetry)?



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