Cumulative Adjectives Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

cumulative adjectives
Cumulative adjectives "lean on one another, piggyback style," says Diana Hacker, "with each modifying a larger word group" (The Bedford Handbook, 2002). (Yagi Studio/Getty Images)

Cumulative adjectives are two or more adjectives that build on one another and together modify a noun. Also called unit modifiers.

Unlike coordinate adjectives (which can be joined by and and whose order can be reversed), cumulative adjectives are generally not separated by commas.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Charlie bent slowly and took hold of the bright red rubber globe and arose slowly, a secretive look in his eyes. He looked north and south and then up at Odd's bony pale brown face."
    (Ray Bradbury, "The Dead Man." Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales. William Morrow, 2003)
  • "It was not what he would choose if he had a choice, but it was the least tiresome example of what he recognized now as a fixed style, with its sober rich oriental carpet, the lace curtains under looped-back velvet hangings, the large round table covered with another silky oriental rug in sweet, refined colors."
    (Katherine Anne Porter, "The Leaning Tower." The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Mariner Books, 1979)
  • "The bright floral couch matched the bright floral love seat and the bright floral easy chair."
    (Dana Stabenow, Whisper to the Blood. St. Martin's Press, 2009)
  • "It's one of those magnificent old movie houses with a huge marquee that lights up the sky like a carnival, a ceiling that looks like it belongs in a Spanish cathedral, heavy red velvet curtains laced with threads that sparkle gold, and a real live organist who disappears into the floor when the previews begin."
    (Pam Houston, "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had." Other Voices, 1999)
  • "Elinor returned with a very thin gold chain and Anya's heart almost burst right through her breast, for attached to the chain by a small gold clasp was a small white ivory tusk."
    (Aran Ashe, The Dungeons Of Lidir. Nexus, 2003)
  • "White china glinted on the plate-rack above the chimney. Beside it hung large shiny copper pans that would not have looked out of place in a more opulent house."
    (Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro. Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa. New Directions, 2003)
  • Piggybacking Adjectives
    - "Cumulative adjectives [are] adjectives that build up meaning from word to word as they get closer to the noun (familiar rock tunes). The order of cumulative adjectives cannot be changed without destroying meaning."
    (Lynn Quitman Troyka, Simon & Schuster Quick Access Reference for Writers, 4th ed. Prentice Hall, 2003)

    - "Adjectives that do not modify the noun separately are cumulative.
    Three large gray shapes moved slowly toward us.
    Beginning with the adjective closest to the noun shapes, these modifiers lean on one another, piggyback style, with each modifying a larger word group. Gray modifies shapes, large modifies gray shapes, and three modifies large gray shapes. We cannot insert the word and between cumulative adjectives (three and large and gray shapes)."
    (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002)
  • Punctuating Coordinate Adjectives and Cumulative Adjectives
    "Using commas with multiple adjectives is another challenge; fortunately, the rules are straightforward.
    1. Can you put the word and between the adjectives and have the sentence still make sense?
    2. Can you reverse the order of the adjectives and have the sentence still make sense?
    If you can do those two things, then use a comma between the adjectives because each adjective is describing the noun. These are called coordinate adjectives.
    Aardvark is a hairy and small animal.
    Aardvark is a small and hairy animal.
    Aardvark is a small, hairy animal.
    You can use and between the adjectives and reverse the order in the examples above, so you use a comma.

    "When your adjectives don't meet the above criteria--when you can't reverse the order or put and between them and have them still make sense--they are called cumulative adjectives. They are adjectives that build on each other, and you don't put a comma between them. For example, in the following sentence, you can't change the order of the adjectives four, green, and Easter:
    Squiggly found four green Easter eggs.
    Squiggly found green four Easter eggs. (yuck!)
    Squiggly found Easter green four eggs. (yuck!)
    Squiggly found green Easter four eggs. (yuck!)
    Remember, you can test whether you're dealing with cumulative or coordinate adjectives by checking if it's possible to switch them around."
    (Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. Henry Holt, 2011)