The Difference Between Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Writers are often confused about whether to punctuate a phrase that includes two or more adjectives. To determine whether a comma is required between any two adjectives, test whether they are coordinate or noncoordinate.

Coordinate adjectives have equal status: They both modify a noun or noun phrase. By contrast, noncoordinate adjectives have different functions: The former type of adjective modifies a noun or noun phrase, and the latter modifies a phrase consisting of another adjective and a noun or a noun phrase when that other adjective is an essential description of the thing being described. The following sentences, and the discussions and revisions that follow, illustrate this point.

1. For decades, companies have assigned repetitive, manual tasks to robots.

Repetitive describes a type of manual tasks—it does not have equal status with manual in modifying tasks—so the adjectives are noncoordinate and no comma should follow the word: “For decades, companies have assigned repetitive manual tasks to robots.”

2. The 218-acre, oceanfront estate is for sale.

The phrasal adjective “218-acre” modifies “oceanfront estate,” not just estate, so the adjectives are noncoordinate and no commas are required: “The 218-acre oceanfront estate is for sale.”

3. A holistic forward-looking, risk-focused, continuous-monitoring approach is often difficult.

Forward-looking and risk-focused both describe “continuous-monitoring approach,” and they’re interchangeable, so they are coordinate adjectives and should be separated from each other by a comma. However, “continuous-monitoring” is not equivalent to the other phrases; it is an essential part of the phrase they are modifying, so the final comma is incorrect: “A holistic forward-looking, risk-focused continuous-monitoring approach is often difficult.” (Also, holistic modifies everything that follows, so it is noncoordinate and therefore no comma should follow it.)

4. Recognizing how a home meets your needs, and the needs of your family, can help you contribute to the development of a happy, healthy, home environment.

Home is not equivalent to happy and healthy, it is an intrinsic term describing the type of environment that can be happy and healthy. Those words, which are interchangeable, modify the phrase “home environment,” so the final comma is incorrect: “Recognizing how a home meets your needs, and the needs of your family, can help you contribute to the development of a happy, healthy home environment.”

5. The risks presented by this complex, fragmented, legacy architecture are rarely, if ever, considered.

Complex and fragmented describe “legacy architecture,” so legacy is not equivalent to the first two words and should not be separated from them. Those words, however, are interchangeable and must be set off by a comma: “The risks presented by this complex, fragmented legacy architecture are rarely, if ever, considered.”

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8 Responses to “The Difference Between Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives”

  • S. Blankstein

    Good day,
    In example #4,
    Recognizing how a home meets your needs, and the needs of your family, can help you contribute to the development of a happy, healthy, home environment.
    – could you kindly explain why “and the needs of your family” is punctuated?
    Thanks,
    //SB

  • Michael King

    I frequently have to begin medical reports with something like:
    “This is a 24-year-old left-handed African-American man. . .” Are commas required between “old”, “left”, and “African-American”?

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:
    Your hyphen usage is correct, except that “African American” and similar phrases need no hyphenation, even as phrasal adjectives modifying a noun (such as man here).

  • venqax

    But what about the commas between old and left, handed and African?

  • Mark Nichol

    Oops—I misread commas for hyphens. Yes, separate each phrasal adjective from the others: “This is a 24-year-old, left-handed, African American man.” (“African American” isn’t intrinsic to man; it, like the other phrasal adjectives, is an attribute of the man in question, so the three descriptive phrases are coordinate.)

  • Thebluebird11

    @Michael King: Maybe you are a medical transcriptionist, as I am, and I am shocked to see that Mark is recommending commas in there. I have never put commas between those words, and when I have edited others’ work, I have always removed them. When I put on my other hat (as a PA dictating charts), I don’t speak with any pauses between those words, so I would never dream of putting commas in there to visually stop a reader. Also, IMHO all those commas add a lot of unnecessary clutter to a medical report, and in general, medical reports tend to be full of abbreviations and things to keep things streamlined, without a lot of extraneous, distracting verbiage.

    And @Mark, in your example #4, I don’t even see why any commas are needed in that sentence except after the word “happy.” It’s not as if someone would necessarily pause while speaking that sentence. It’s just…one long-ish sentence.

  • venqax

    @bluebird: I realize that medical transcription and other HC may have its own professional conventions regarding these things. But otherwise in the sentence, “This is a 24-year-old left-handed African-American man.” it seems you would need commas between the adjectives. Imagine the hyphens away and if there were simply one word for “24-year-old” and “left-handed”. “Vigintquattuarian” and “sinistrimite”. You would have to write, “This is a vigintquatturarian, sinistrimite, African American man”, wouldn’t you?

    Not with a straight face, maybe…

  • Mark Nichol

    Blankstein:
    The commas that parenthetically set “and the needs of your family” off from the rest of the sentence are optional. In context, the text is focused on the individual, so that additional information is in fact nonessential and is therefore treated as such.

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