Who’s Afraid of “Bad, Big Wolf”? (Part 1)

While recently reading Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of A Comma Queen, I was overjoyed to see that she discusses comma use related to adjacent adjectives, which seems to be an underdiscussed topic. The rules of thumb provided in popular style and usage guides work well in a lot of cases, but the basis for these rules isn’t ever explained and I seem to be forever coming across exceptions. For example, Garner’s Modern American Usage states:

When two adjectives modifying the same noun are related in sense, they should be separated by a comma (or else and). So we say a big, sprawling house and a poignant, uplifting film. But when the consecutive adjectives are unrelated, there shouldn’t be a comma—hence a big white house and a poignant foreign film. (19)

This makes sense as long as you don’t need clarification regarding what related in sense means. A search of the Corpus of Historical American English identifies thirteen published uses of big, sprawling and seven uses of big sprawling, so there may be some disagreement about how related the terms are. Big white does somewhat better: it appears 501 times in the Corpus while big, white only appears 58 times.

Adjective Categories

Although none of the major style guides provide a definition of related in sense, linguists long ago developed a list—or, more accurately, different versions of a list—that does just this. The following list (from Adjective Order in English: A Semantic Account with Cross-linguistic Applications by Enrica Rosato) identifies eight classes of adjective. To Rosato’s eight classes I have added a ninth category that some other sources mention as important to consider.

 

Category Example
1. General opinion: Adjectives that can apply to any noun ugly
2. Specific opinion: Adjectives to describe particular kinds of noun derelict
3. Size large
4. Shape rectangular
5. Age fifty-year-old
6. Color black
7. Origin (nationality) Malaysian
8. Material steel
9. Attributive noun/qualifying adjective oil
    Noun being described tanker

 

This list provides a good starting point for determining the relationships between adjectives. In Garner’s example of a big white house, big falls under the category Size and white falls under Color. Since these adjectives aren’t in the same category and are therefore unrelated, no comma would be needed. In the case of a big, sprawling house one could argue that sprawling is not necessarily related to size: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as to spread or develop irregularly or without restraint, which suggests that it would fall into the Shape category. Based on this guidance, the adjectives again fall into two categories, and a comma would not be required.

Adjective Order

The list also indicates the order in which adjectives typically appear. That a regular order exists helps explain a second rule of thumb for comma use, which appears in Morson’s English Guide for Court Reporters as “If reversing the order of the adjectives does not affect the naturalness of the sentence, use the comma.” That is, poignant, uplifting film sounds as natural as uplifting, poignant film, so a comma should be used. But white big house sound decidedly awkward, so a comma would be out of place.

The Chicago Manual of Style phrases the rule slightly differently, stating that coordinate adjectives (those that should be separated by commas) “can also usually be reversed in order and still make sense.” Phrased in this way, this rule seems to be of limited usefulness: both black ugly tanker and ugly black tanker are perfectly understandable, if not both perfectly natural sounding. Chicago’s rule seems best suited for resolving relatively uncommon situations, such as where an attributive noun could be misidentified as an adjective: for example, ornery fur trapper makes sense while fur ornery trapper doesn’t.

With naturalness, as with related in sense, we have rely on an intuitive sense of what the undefined term means. Mary Norris alludes to this problem in Between You & Me, in a passage in which she also applies the rule “if you can substitute ‘and’ for the comma it belongs there”:

Then it happened again: “She smiled that stunning, wide smile.” The phrase “stunning and wide” doesn’t make it for me, and neither does “wide and stunning” (although I would have read right over “wide, stunning smile”). (106)

Applying the naturalness rule also requires a familiarity with the adjectives being used: venerable, lofty redwoods probably sounds more natural to most people than does old, tall trees. Using the adjective list (as well as a good dictionary) removes the necessity of relying on an innate sense of naturalness for decision making.

The problem with all of this is that there are idioms that don’t adhere to this logic (big bad wolf is a common example) as well as author preferences (as Mary Norris discovered). So in part 2, I will try to address a more important question: Does any of this really matter?

1 Comment

  1. In the middle of sorting some of this out in a MS right now, and am glad that there is more nuance to figuring this out than some guides might have you believe! Thanks for the post.

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