Coordinate Adjectives: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

fresh juicy watermelon
In the phrase "fresh, juicy watermelon," fresh and juicy are coordinate adjectives. (Westend61/Getty Images)

Coordinate adjectives are a series of two or more adjectives that independently modify a noun and are roughly equal in importance.

In contrast to cumulative adjectives, coordinate adjectives can be joined by and, and the order of the adjectives can be reversed. Likewise, coordinate adjectives (unlike cumulative adjectives) are traditionally separated by commas.

Note, however, Amy Einsohn's observation in The Copyeditor's Handbook (2006): "The convention of placing a comma between coordinate adjectives seems to be fading, perhaps as part of the trend toward open punctuation, perhaps because the absence of this comma rarely confuses readers, or perhaps because the distinction between coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives is sometimes hard to apply."

Examples and Observations

  • "The air was thick and wet. A warm, dense fog had settled over the paddies and there was the stillness that precedes rain."
    (Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried." Esquire, 1987)
     
  • "The popular girls were the blonde, blue-eyed wealthy ones who lived on the beach and had suntans."
    (Linda Mintle, A Daughter's Journey Home. Thomas Nelson, 2004)
     
  • "Out in the hall she heard a single loud, insistent voice, but as she reached the head of the stairs it ceased and an outer door banged."
    (F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Cut-Glass Bowl." Scribner's Magazine, May 1920) 
     
  • "Timmy was no cute, dumb boy. He was a clever, conniving businessman."
    (Grant Michaels, Dead as a Doornail. St. Martin's Press, 1998)
     
  • "This patch of tall, knobby housing, with its spindly porches and narrow cemented passageways between the house walls through which people passed into their back yards, gave a hivelike impression of intense and contented population. Farther in the same direction as these houses there was Second Street, where in solid small brick rows lived the sexy girls, the buoyant, sassy, handsome daughters of factory workers and skilled tradesmen."
    (John Updike, Self-Consciousness, 1989) 
     
  • Testing for Coordinate Adjectives
    "There are two 'tests' for determining whether a pair of adjectives is coordinate. A pair of adjectives is coordinate if (1) one can place and between the adjectives, or (2) one can reverse the order of the adjectives and still have a sensible phrase. The phrase 'a long restful vacation' passes both tests (a long and restful vacation; a restful, long vacation), and therefore these adjectives are coordinate. But 'a long summer vacation' fails both tests (X a long and summer vacation; X a summer long vacation), and therefore these adjectives are not coordinate."
    (Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 2006)
       
  • Punctuating a Series of Adjectives: Coordinate vs. Cumulative
    "Multiple adjectives modifying the same noun or pronoun are considered either coordinate or cumulative; if coordinate, each adjective could modify the noun separately, so commas are used, as in any series: The overripe, bursting, odiferous mangoes seeped onto the countertop. Notice that the arrangement of these adjectives has no particular order or rationale; each modifier might appear elsewhere in the series and and could be placed between them: The bursting and odiferous and overripe mangoes seeped onto the countertop.  

    "Cumulative adjectives, on the other hand, are not equivalent to a punctuated series because the first adjective in the group is not individually modifying the noun but is instead modifying the noun-modifier combination that follows. For example, in the phrase obsolete desktop computer, obsolete modifies desktop computer and desktop modifies computer.These adjectives cannot appear in a different order (the desktop obsolete computer), nor can they be connected with and (the desktop and obsolete computer)."
    (Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson, The Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Writer's Digest Books, 2005)