Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

An adjective is a word that provides detail about, or modifies, a noun. Adjectives are sometimes confused with adverbs, which modify verbs. The -verb in adverb gives you a clue, as does the -ject in adjective — just like the -ject in object: The names of objects are always nouns.

Two divisions of adjectives are coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are two or more adjectives, separated by commas, that parallel each other in modifying a noun.

To test whether adjectives are coordinate, you can replace comma(s) with and. If the sentence makes sense with that change, and if you can rearrange the adjectives in any order without compromising sense, they pass the test.

Take the sentence “See the box.” Insert an adjective: “See the big box.” Then, insert another: “See the big, brown box.”

Now, replace the comma with and: “See the big and brown box.” Make sense? Yes.

Now, reverse the adjectives: “See the brown, big box.” Make sense? Yes, it does, though it doesn’t roll off the tongue as trippingly; conventions have been established in English that determine which types of adjectives have priority than others in such constructions, and “See the brown, big box” violates one of those conventions. However, it’s just mildly awkward sounding, not nonsensical.

Now, replace the comma with and: “See the brown and big box.” Make sense? Yes. Again, it’s not elegant, but it makes sense.

But consider this sentence: “See the big, bread box.” The comma seems wrong. Why? Test it: “See the big and bread box.” Un-uh. “See the bread, big box.” Nope. “See the bread and big box.” Ix-nay. What gives?

In this sentence and its attempted variants, big and bread are noncoordinate adjectives. In the original sentence, the idea is that the box is big and the box is brown — the adjectives are parallel in purpose. But in “See the big, bread box,” big modifies “bread box,” a permanent open compound (a noun consisting of two or more words that have developed a distinct meaning).

The sentence does not state that the box is big and the box is bread; it states that the bread box is big. So, just as “See the big box” needs no comma between the adjective and the noun, “See the big bread box” requires no comma between the adjective and the permanent open compound (which consists of an adjective and a noun). The adjective big and the adjective bread have different functions; therefore, they are noncoordinate.

But note that compounds do not have to be permanent for this rule to apply. Test this more complex sentence: “The British Council is the United Kingdom’s government-backed, cultural-promotion agency.”

Replace and with a comma: “The British Council is the United Kingdom’s government-backed and cultural-promotion agency.”

Reverse the adjectives: “The British Council is the United Kingdom’s cultural-promotion, government-backed agency.”

Reverse the adjectives and replace and with a comma: “The British Council is the United Kingdom’s cultural-promotion and government-backed agency.”

These sentences are beyond awkward. In this case, “cultural-promotion agency” is a temporary open compound that is described here as being government backed. When adjectives are noncoordinate, no comma is required, so even though this is a complex sentence, omit internal punctuation (or recast and relax it, as with this option: “The British council, a cultural-promotion agency, is backed by the government of the United Kingdom.”)

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12 Responses to “Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives”

  • nnamdi

    Nice. As a student of English, I visit this blog almost everyday. So far, I’ve had no cause to regret. Keep it up!

  • Eddy Bacher

    See the big breadbox. Somebody got tired of dancing around this open compound.

  • Ken Khelah

    The Royal Order of Adjectives:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/the-royal-order-of-adjectives/

  • Jim Murphy

    My question is slightly off topic. While reading this lesson I noticed you only used single spaces between sentences. I’m seeing this practice more and more online. Even when I submit comments to various online forums the second space never appears in the post. I’m wondering if the traditional use of double spaces between sentences is falling by the wayside.

    As always, thanks for the tips!

  • Mark Nichol

    Jim:

    The double letter space, actually, left the publishing house a long time ago. Every since typewriters gave way to computer keyboards and monospace, or nonproportional, typesetting was replaced by proportional letter spacing, which makes it easier to distinguish between spaces between words and spaces between sentences, the single space has ruled. Unfortunately, many educators still insist that students turn in assignments with two spaces between sentences. Fortunately, it takes just a single find-and-replace click to eliminate the double space.

  • Alan Jones

    Could the government-backed portion be treated as a separate clause providing additional information on the United Kingdom’s cultural-promotion agency?

    The British Council is the United Kingdom’s, government-backed, cultural-promotion agency.

  • Mark Nichol

    Alan:

    Unfortunately, inserting “government-backed” as a parenthetical phrase is grammatically incorrect.

    It’s best to either omit any punctuation (“The British Council is the United Kingdom’s government-backed cultural-promotion agency.”) or relax the sentence: (“The British council, a cultural-promotion agency, is backed by the government of the United Kingdom.”)

  • Alan Jones

    Thanks Mark. I’m guessing that’s because at the point we’re inserting government-backed as an independent clause we don’t yet have the subject for it to be dependent upon? “United Kingdom’s cultural-promotional agency” would be the subject, which we’d be breaking in half. Is that correct?

  • Mark Nichol

    Alan:

    I’m not an expert grammarian, so I can’t say whether your analysis is valid. I just know that you can’t parenthesize after the possessive form of a noun (“United Kingdom’s”), and I simply analyze instances of two or more adjectives to determine whether they’re coordinate or noncoordinate.

  • Alan Jones

    Thank you. Great article. I appreciate your following through in the comments.

  • Elizabeth Kim

    While I agree with all the rules in this article, what about the frequently seen habit of omitting the comma between commonly used coordinate adjectives? For instance, it might feel pedantic to write “big, brown box” rather than “big brown box” in many circumstances. “Earnest young freshman” is another example. It’s a matter of taste, perhaps, to prefer fewer What do you think of this? (Maybe I’m just used to marketing copy or fiction.)

  • Kyle

    In my opinion, the phrase “See the big bread box” makes me think that I’m going to a boxing match to observe a “big bread” fighting in the ring. (As in, wow, did you see that big bread box?). In other literary circumstances, “breadbox” may be a better choice, but in this blog, understandably, “bread box” was more suitable for explanation’s sake.

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