Coordinate and Noncoordinate Adjectives
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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