Category: Punctuation

Adjectives and Commas

I tend to prate on about avoiding adjectives. I picked this habit up from reading too many books allegedly about writing well. “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” wrote Mark Twain. And just about everyone who has thought seriously about effective writing has come to a similar conclusion. Adjectives, the notion goes, are descriptive shortcuts, and, like most shortcuts, they are favored by the lazy. Compare these two sentences:

The day at the lake was cool, bright, and windy.

The wind swept the shadows of clouds across the lake.

The first, with three adjectives, is stale and abstract. The second is more concrete and puts our imaginations to work. But adjectives are, in fact, often necessary and can enrich effective writing. I like this sentence and both of its adjectives:

A northwest wind swept the shadows of small clouds across the lake.

I happen to think that the adjective, “northwest,” conveys the idea of coolness, but another writer might want to emphasize the cold, putting two or even more commas in a row. How should these be punctuated?

Here is a guideline: You should leave out the commas if the adjectives modify each other.

A dark gray cloud hovers over my soul.

You should include the commas if the adjectives do not modify one another. Generally, if you can rearrange the adjectives without confusing the meaning, then you need the commas.

That fat, lazy, smelly bigfoot is sleeping in my hammock again. Dan? 


Three Rules of the Possessive

I don’t teach in the summer. I tried it once and found it disagreeable. I spend most of my time at my cottage on a small lake in upper Michigan. I have no access to the web and limited phone service. This is all to explain why my posts have been much less frequent recently. In a few weeks I will be back to civilization in Montana, such as it is, and spouting off on a more regular basis.

I do get online on occasion when I go to the café/bookstore in town. I noticed yesterday that the café is selling “womens t-shirts.” Ever the subversive grammarian, I grabbed my Sharpie and added the apostrophe. They now sell “women’s t-shirts.”

Here are the basic rules of the possessive:

1. Add ’s to singular words no matter what letter the word ends with.

Matt’s bass runs sound a lot like a mosquito.

Boss’s color copier is monitored by hidden cameras.

2. Add ’s to all plural words that do not already end in s.

Women’s t-shirts are sold here.

Eloise started the children’s protest against microwave French fries.

3. Add only the apostrophe to plural words that already end in s.

The students’ sobriety came as a real surprise.

Pilots’ breathalyzer tests are usually graded on a curve.