How to Separate a List of Descriptions with Commas
In English, writers often string together a bunch of single-word descriptions, adjectives, in grammar lingo. If you have a set of descriptions, you probably have a set of commas also. Take a look at the following sentences:
What do you think of me? Belle asked Jill in an idle moment.
Jill took a deep breath, I think you are a sniffling, smelly, pimple-tongued, frizzy-haired monster.
Thank you, said Belle, who was trying out for the part of the wicked witch in the school play. Do you think I should paint my teeth black, too?
Notice the commas in Jill’s answer. Four descriptions are listed: sniffling, smelly, pimple-tongued, frizzy-haired.
A comma separates each of the descriptions from the next, but there is no comma between the last description (frizzy-haired) and the word that it’s describing (monster).
Here’s a little more of Belle and Jill’s conversation:
So do I get the part? asked Belle.
Maybe, answered Jill. I have four sniffling, smelly, pimple-tongued, frizzy-haired monsters waiting to audition. I’ll let you know.
Now look closely at Jill’s answer. This time there are five descriptions of the word monster: four, sniffling, smelly, pimple-tongued, frizzy-haired.
There are commas after sniffling, smelly, and pimple-tongued. As previously stated, no comma follows frizzy-haired because you shouldn’t put a comma between the last description and the word that it describes. But why is there no comma after four? Here’s why: sniffling, smelly, pimple-tongued, and frizzy-haired are more or less equal in importance in the sentence. They have different meanings, but they all do the same job — telling you how disgusting Belle’s costume is. Four is in a different category. It gives you different information, telling you how many monsters are waiting, not how they look. Therefore, it’s not jumbled into the rest of the list.
Numbers aren’t separated from other descriptions or from the word(s) that they describe. Don’t put a comma after a number. Also, don’t use commas to separate other descriptions from words that indicate number or amount — many, more, few, less, and so forth. More descriptive words that you shouldn’t separate from other descriptions or from the words that they describe include other, another, this, that, these, those. Examine these correctly punctuated sentences:
Sixteen smelly, bedraggled, stained hats were lined up on the shelf marked, WITCH COSTUME.
Additional stinky, mud-splattered, toeless shoes sat on the shelf marked, GOBLIN SHOES.
No drippy, disgusting, artificial wounds were in stock.
This green, glossy, licorice-flavored lipstick belongs in the witch’s makeup kit.
Those shiny, battery-powered, factory-sealed witches’ wands are great.
In your writing, you may create other sentences in which the descriptions should not be separated by commas. For example, sometimes a few descriptive words seem to blend into each other to create one larger description in which one word is clearly more important than the rest. Technically the list of descriptions may provide two or three separate facts about the word that you’re describing, but in practice, they don’t deserve equal attention. Take a look at this example;
Jill just bought that funny little French hat.
You already know that you should not separate that from funny with a comma. But what about funny, little, and French? If you write
Jill just bought that funny, little, French hat.
You’re giving equal weight to each of the three descriptions. Do you really want to emphasize all three qualities? Probably not. In fact, you’re probably not making a big deal out of the fact that the hat is funny and little. Instead, you’re emphasizing that the hat is French. So you don’t need to put commas between the other descriptions.
Sentences like the example require judgment calls. Use this rule as a guide: If the items in a description are not of equal importance, don’t separate them with commas.