Writers in the Storm

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March 14, 2022

To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 3)

by Lori Freeland

Commas cause confusion. I think we can all agree on that. It doesn’t matter if we write fiction, nonfiction, articles, blogs, or news stories. Even English teachers sometimes struggle. And while the comma may be a tiny piece of punctuation, it does pack a pretty powerful punch.

Using commas incorrectly can mess up more than just your grammar. It can play with the meaning and context of your message. Of what you’re trying to say. Think of your page as a road. Commas in the wrong places become speedbumps that slow down the ride. But commas in the right places pave the way for a clear, smooth ride.    

So let’s jump back in where we left off. If you missed the beginning of this series and want to get caught up or do a quick review, check out the previous posts here: To Comma, or Not to Comma Part 1 and To Comma, or Not to Comma Part 2.

Note: Watch for a list of quick comma reference sites at the end of this post.


An adjective has an important job—to modify the noun. Modify just means describe. Commas help adjectives do that.

Coordinating Adjectives (These need commas)

Coordinating adjectives equally describe the same noun. They both carry the same weight. There can be two or more, and we always use commas to separate them.  

  • Correct: Maria is a mean, ungrateful teenager.
  • Incorrect: Maria is a mean ungrateful teenager.

Mean and ungrateful both describe the same noun—teenager. She’s a mean teenager. And she’s an ungrateful teenager. Since she’s equally both, we add a comma between the two adjectives to show that. And we might think about shipping Maria off to boarding school.

Side Note: Make sure not to get comma happy and stick one between the final adjective and the noun. This is more of a problem with three adjectives than two. See below. But like with a single descriptor, we wouldn’t want to separate the adjective from the noun it’s describing. And that’s what commas do—they separate.

  • Correct: Mark is a mean, ungrateful, rude teenager.
  • Incorrect: Mark is a mean, ungrateful, rude, teenager.

Fairly straightforward, right? Now that you have coordinating adjectives down, let’s talk about cumulative adjectives.

Cumulative Adjectives (They don’t need commas)

Cumulative adjectives don’t equally describe the same noun. In number terms, cumulative means things like build on, add to, increase. In adjective terms, cumulative means the descriptors don’t carry the same weight. Because of that, they don’t need commas. We don’t want to separate them.

  • Correct: She wore a bright purple headband.
  • Incorrect: She wore a bright, purple headband.

The adjective closest to the noun (which is purple) combines with that noun and becomes a unit (purpleheadband).

It’s weird, I know. But if you think of that final adjective and the noun as one “entity,” it helps clear up what you do with cumulative adjectives. If purpleheadband is one unit, you can’t break it up with a comma. It’s superglued together.

The first adjective in the series (which is bright) is going to describe that entire unit (purpleheadband). It’s a bright purpleheadband.

Grab a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and let’s try another one.

  • Correct: The architect drew up plans for a unique custom cabin.
  • Incorrect: The architect drew up plans for a unique, custom cabin.

It isn’t a unique and custom cabin. It’s a unique customcabin. Custom and cabin become one unit that unique describes.

Still confused? Need a little more help? Here are two tricks that tell you exactly when you need a comma and when you don’t. It’s all about retaining the meaning of the sentence.

Say YES to the comma if you CAN:

1. reverse the adjectives without changing the meaning

  • Correct: I climbed the round, tall hill.
  • Correct: I climbed the tall, round hill.

Either way you write it, it’s both a round and a tall hill.

2. add the word “and” between the adjectives without changing the meaning

  • Correct: I climbed the round and tall hill.
  • Correct: I climbed the tall and round hill.

The sentences make sense both ways.

Say NO to the comma if you CAN’T:

1. reverse the adjectives without changing the meaning

  • Incorrect: They lived in a clapboard brown house.

This just sounds weird. Can you hear that too?

2. add the word “and” between the adjectives without changing the meaning

  • Incorrect: They lived in a brown and clapboard house.

Same here.

Don’t like this example?

Purdue Owl (one of the references I’ll share at the end) uses this one instead.

  • Correct: They lived in a white frame house.
  • Incorrect: They lived in a white, frame house.

Using the two checks above, we see:

(reverse the adjectives) It’s not a frame white house.

(add “and” between the adjectives) It’s not a frame and white house.

But it is a white framehouse. 

Size, Color, Number

Most adjectives that refer to size, color, and number are cumulative not coordinate. All that means is—don’t use a comma.

  • Correct: My four new white blouses are the same size.
  • Incorrect: My four, new, white blouses are the same size.
  • Incorrect: My four, new white blouses are the same size.
  • Incorrect: My four new, white blouses are the same size.

Try to think of newwhiteblouses as one unit that four describes. Try not to wonder why anyone would even need four white blouses. Red or black, maybe. But white? Eh.

Side Note: Watch out for adjectives like “light blue.”

Why? Because light can mean “not heavy” or “pale in color.”

  • Correct: She pulled on a light blue coat.

In this context, light doesn’t refer to the color of the coat. It refers to the weight of it. Light modifies the bluecoat as a unit.

  • Correct: She pulled on a light-blue coat.

In this context, light does refer to color, and we use the hyphen to make that clear.  

Oxford Commas

The dratted Oxford comma—also known as the serial comma—has become controversial in the world of writing. Some writers hate it. Others will die on a hill for it. But either way, the Oxford comma is currently the correct way to punctuate items in a series in order to make the meaning of the sentence clear.

Let me show you why.

  • Correct: Elena really gets into cooking, her family, and her dog.

This means she likes three things—cooking, family, dog.  

  • Incorrect: Elena really gets into cooking her family and her dog.

This means she likes to cook her family and her dog. A good thing to know before you accept her dinner invitation.

  • Correct: We invited the neighbors, Blake Shelton, and Taylor Swift.

This means we invited our neighbors and Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift.

  • Incorrect: We invited the neighbors, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift.  

This means the neighbors we invited are Blake and Taylor. How exciting! Do you think they’ll show up?

More Than Words: Phrases and Clauses Too

Did you know the Oxford comma isn’t just for words? You can use it for phrases and clauses that come at the beginning of a sentence.

  • Correct: Hope, joy, and peace come at Christmas.
  • Correct: Dad will ground me, take away my car, and quit paying for my phone if I miss curfew one more time.

Or at the end of a sentence.

  • Correct: Christmas brings me hope, joy, and peace.
  • Correct: Dad said if I missed curfew one more time, he would ground me, take away my car, and quit paying for my phone.

When Clauses Come In The Middle of a Sentence

Let’s look at something a little trickier. Don’t worry. You won’t run into this too often. I just wanted to give you a heads-up.

  • Correct: Mom argued that my sister, who was leaving for college, who no longer needed a curfew, and who was becoming an adult, should not be grounded.

Whoa. Stop. Go back. Hang on there a second. What in the actual comma is going on with that example? Why is that scrappy little mark showing up after “sister” and after “adult” too?

In order for the sentence to make sense as a whole, we need to be able to remove everything between the beginning and the end. In this case, “sister” and “should.” If we do, it reads like this:

Mom argued that my sister should not be grounded.

And it’s a complete sentence on its own. Which is what it needs to be.

When Oxford Commas Aren't Enough

Sometimes Oxford commas aren’t strong enough to provide a clear picture of what a sentence means. In these cases, you have two choices—reword the sentence or add an “and.”

  • Incorrect: I listened to advice from my friend, Will Smith, and my brother.

Grammatically, Will Smith is “the friend” in this sentence. But you meant three people, not two.

There are two ways to fix the clarity. Either restructure the sentence or add a few “ands.”

  • Correct: I listened to advice from my friend, my brother, and Will Smith. (restructure)
  • Correct: I listened to advice from my friend and Will Smith and my brother. (add “ands”)

We are done! For now. Whew. You made it. Pat yourself on the back. Do you feel how much more comma savvy you’ve become? After you recover from this post, stay tuned for next. We’ll talk about modifiers, pauses, people, titles, places, and dates.    

In the meantime, here’s a quick guide with links to my favorite grammar sites.

My favorite go-to or commas is Purdue Owl, where they break down the basic comma rules into a quick guide as well as an extended guide. You can check them out here. Quick Comma Rules and Extended Comma Rules.

But you can also find great information at:

Thanks for hanging in there. Now it’s your turn.

Do you struggle with punctuating adjectives? Or just rely on your best guess. How do you feel about that pesky Oxford comma? And have I changed your mind? I love to read your comments. I also use them to make my next posts stronger. So, please, share!

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About Lori

An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult.

When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.

You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her book, Where You Belong: a runaway series novella, is currently free on Kindle Unlimited. 

Where You Belong

A girl can run from her roots, but she can’t escape her heart.  

Six years ago, after a practical joke gone wrong, Hendrix Marshall blew the single stoplight in the town of Runaway, Wisconsin, and never looked back. But when Grandpa Joe—retired hippie, Jimmy Hendrix devotee, and the man who raised her—ends up in the hospital, she reluctantly agrees to take a cab home. As long as she can keep the meter running.

But then she comes heel-to-boot with Alexander Ryland—former best friend, sometimes nemesis, always secret crush. And his ocean-blue eyes still have the power to launch cartwheels in her belly. Too bad his freestyle attitude makes her certifiable. He’s the reason she left. He won’t be the reason she stays. Even if he’s determined to collect interest on the kiss she’s owed him for the last ten years.

17 comments on “To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 3)”

  1. These are great posts! I am a devotee of the Oxford comma. I have never understood the desire of some editors to banish it. They sometimes cite printing costs, but how much increase could such a little squiggle really make? Oxford commas RULE!

  2. Love your clear examples, Lori! I especially loved the example of when the Oxford comma is not enough. Commas are a challenge, but you've made them much clearer.

  3. I'm loving this series. My first drafts always have enough commas to put you in a coma. I end up ripping a ton of them out like weeds when I edit!

  4. You are the comma queen. Thanks for such a great breakdown! I will be sending copyedit clients to this post if/when they're struggling. ♥

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