Coordinate and cumulative adjectives

I was editing a hypothetical situation in which a patient had an abdomen that was “appropriately mildly tender.” I was pretty sure there should be a comma between appropriately and mildly. This is in the context of describing an abdominal exam on a patient after surgery. In this situation, it is both appropriate to have tenderness and the tenderness should be mild.

From my understanding, if two adverbs both describe the same adjective, one may either use a conjunction (appropriately and mildly tender) or elide the conjunction with a comma (appropriately, mildly tender). I asked this on English stack exchange (under a pseudonym) and got some surprisingly hilarious responses.

I can just about imagine a context where being appropriately mildly tender might make sense in relation to a fillet steak, but not someone’s abdomen! Perhaps you mean His abdomen is mildly tender, as one might expect in the circumstances. Note that this use of appropriately means as is fitting / as is right and proper, which isn’t quite the same as as is to be expected


My ultimate conclusion was that “appropriately” was modifying “mildly” and not tender. Therefore, not adding a comma was reasonable. In my mind though, I kept processing the phrase as “appropriate mild tenderness” which didn’t seem like it required a comma. This got me thinking about adjectives and commas. Although I’m sure I learned this in elementary school at some point, I definitely needed a refresher… Apparently, adjectives can be categorized in 1 of 9 categories (the so-called “royal order of adjectives”).

  1. Determiner – articles, possessives, number, demonstratives
  2. Opinion
  3. Size
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Qualifier (Purpose)

Multiple adjectives within the same category are “coordinate” and adjectives in different classes are “cumulative.” Coordinate adjectives require commas between them, cumulative adjectives do not. Moreover, cumulative adjectives must be presented in the order listed above (Khan Academy gives the mnemonic DOSA-SCOMP). For example, “that metal key large ring” doesn’t sound right (correct – “that large metal key ring”).

The Chicago Manual of Style nicely lays this out.

“A coordinate adjective is one that appears in a sequence with one or more related adjectives to modify the same noun. Coordinate adjectives should be separated by commas or by and {skilled, experienced chess player} {nurturing and loving parent}. If one adjective modifies the noun and another adjective modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun, the adjectives are not considered coordinate and should not be separated by a comma. For example, a lethargic soccer player describes a soccer player who is lethargic. Likewise, phrases such as white brick house and wrinkled canvas jacket are unpunctuated because the adjectives are not coordinate: they have no logical connection in sense (a white house could be made of many different materials; so could a wrinkled jacket). The most useful test is this: if and would fit between the two adjectives, a comma is necessary.”

Chicago Manual of Style 17. Section 5.9.1

Of course, this begs the question, where the heck does the royal order of adjectives come from? Some low-quality internet sleuthing led to David Schmidt’s comment on a Daily Writing Tips article.

The “Royal Order of Adjectives” was compiled and organized by an American college teacher, Dr. Charles Darling, Professor of English, Capital Community College. I believe it was titled as it is just for a pun.

Of course, the ordering of adjectives certainly predates the compilation of Prof. Darling’s Guide to Grammar. I wasn’t able to find confirmation that the royal order was titled for a pun either.

Finally, I stumbled across a preprint article from Leung et al. at Cambridge and ETH Zurich on Investigating Cross-Linguistic Adjective Ordering Tendencies. They nicely summarized the most popular explanatory account of this ordering phenomenon – namely that there are natural hierarchical tendencies based on semantic categories. Interestingly, this tendency is not unique to English and is present across many languages with English-like adjectives.

However, much of the previous work focused on the intuitive judgment of native speakers. This paper examined corpus data across 24 languages with English-like adjectives and was able to predict the order of adjectives, even when the training dataset was in one language and the testing dataset in another. This suggests a universal, cross-linguistic, hierarchical tendency in adjective ordering.


  3. Chicago Manual of Style 17. Section 5.9.1

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