One of the most natural uses of the comma is for separating items in a series. The items might be three or more of almost anything—nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositional phrases, or practically any other grammatical unit.

The comma before the and that joins the last two items in a series is optional, but it often makes a sentence easier to read if you put it in.

Exercise 3.6

Add commas where they are necessary or helpful for separating items in a series. (Commas that are necessary for other reasons have already been added for you.)

1. Animals that form monogamous bonds between males and females include ducks swans geese eagles foxes wolves and mountain lions.

2. Fly patterns flares bombs safety blitzes and flea flickers are all part of the lingo known only to the true football fan.

3. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris is 164 feet high 148 feet wide and 72 feet thick.

4. In one of the many works written about him, the famous Faust exchanged his soul for 24 years of wisdom wealth power and pleasure.

5. Until recently, Ariel Miranda Oberon Titania and Umbriel were thought to be the only moons that revolved around the planet Uranus.

Commas in adjective pairs

A related rule concerns the use of a comma between two adjectives that describe the same noun. Sometimes you insert a comma, and sometimes you don’t. What’s the rule? It’s really very simple. Just ask yourself if you could put the word and between the two adjectives. If you could, then insert the comma. If the word and would sound odd between the adjectives, then leave out the comma.

With this guideline in mind, put a comma between the adjectives in one of these two sentences:

1. Peter is a happy young man.

2. Peter is an enthusiastic energetic man.

The comma should be inserted in sentence 2, right? You know that it’s 2 because you might easily say, “Peter is an enthusiastic and energetic man,” but you would never say, “Peter is a happy and young man.”

This rule can be explained in another way, which you might find useful. Normally, if you can switch the order of the adjectives, then you put in the comma. If you can’t switch the order, then you omit the comma. See if this rule works by rewriting sentences 1 and 2, switching the order of happy and young in sentence 1 and enthusiastic and energetic in sentence 2:

1. ___________________________________________________________

2. ___________________________________________________________

When the adjectives in sentence 1 are switched, the sentence—Peter is a young happy man—sounds odd, doesn’t it? It’s not a sentence you’d be likely to write. That tells you to leave out the comma. When the adjectives in sentence 2 are switched, the sentence sounds fine; that tells you to put in the comma.

Exercise 3.7

Underline the adjectives in each sentence. Then insert a comma between them where one is needed. In each set of sentences, one adjective pair will call for a comma, and one will not. Use one or both of the methods just described to help you.

1. (a) She was known for her quick little smile.

(b) She was known for her generous good-hearted smile.

2. (a) This is a serious military affair.

(b) This is a ridiculous tragic affair.

3. (a) The garden was bordered with perfect tea roses.

(b) The garden was bordered with delicate delightful roses.

4. (a) A creamy buttery soup was served in the cafeteria.

(b) A delicious bean soup was served in the cafeteria.

5. (a) He was a skillful thoughtful sculptor.

(b) He was a thoughtful Italian sculptor.