What are Coordinate and Cumulative Adjectives? [2 Tests]

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We’ve all seen an adjective describing (or modifying) a noun, like in this sentence.

His blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

What if we want to describe a noun with two or more adjectives? In such case, multiple adjectives can be placed consecutively before the noun.

His blue, cheap shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

His light blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

The adjectives in the first sentence, also called coordinate adjectives, have a comma in between, but the adjectives in the second, also called cumulative adjectives, don’t. We’ll cover them in this post.

To jog your memory, adjectives can be categorized as attributive and predicative adjectives. In the former, the adjective is placed immediately before the noun it describes, and, in the latter, the adjective follows the linking verb.

You gave a good performance. [Attributive adjective]

Your performance was good. [Predicative adjective]

Multiple adjectives are mostly used attributively, where they’re placed immediately before the noun they describe. You can write multiple adjectives predicatively as well, but that’s not a good writing practice (more on this later in the post).

Here is a pictorial representation of coordinate and cumulative adjectives in the adjective hierarchy:

Hierarchy of adjectives

(Feel free to use this image for own use, using the above link for attribution.)

Let’s dive in.

1. Coordinate adjectives

In coordinate adjectives, each attributive adjective individually describes the noun. Example:

His blue, cheap shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

The sentence has two coordinate adjectives: blue and cheap. Both of them individually describe shirt: blue shirt and cheap shirt.

Note that they’re separated by a comma and not by the conjunction and. Three coordinate adjectives will require two commas in between. Second, we can shuffle the positions of adjectives, which implies that they’re independent of each other. So, this too would be fine:

His cheap, blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion. [Correct]

Examples of coordinate adjectives

Foul, inconsiderate words can cause more pain than a physical attack.

Within an hour of my friend leaving in huff, I called him up and apologized for the rude, point-blank ‘no’ I said to his request.

CEO’s time should best go into motivational, strategic, needle-moving work.

Researchers have been busy developing a harmless, efficacious, cost-effective vaccine.

The heavy, unrelenting, merciless downpour flooded the city.

Experts suggest studying in small, manageable chunks for better grasp.

Giraffe is a large, non-threatening animal.

The old, battered car cried for service.

The slow, ungainly ducks entered the lake.

Sudden, unexpected things do happen.

Common errors in writing coordinate adjectives

1. Overlapping coordinate adjectives

A common error people make in writing coordinate adjectives is overlap – or even repetition – of description you want to portray through the adjectives. Example:

The judge reprimanded the investigating officer for shoddy, unprofessional probe.

Now, shoddy and unprofessional have significant overlap: a shoddy probe is an unprofessional probe. Therefore, the reader doesn’t get any additional information about the probe. Now, consider this:

The judge reprimanded the investigating officer for shoddy, delayed, biased probe.

The overlap is much less now. So, make your coordinate adjectives as mutually exclusive (non-overlapping, in other words) as possible.

2. Too many coordinate adjectives

Be it semicolon or multiple adjectives, when we learn something new, we overdo it. Two consecutive adjectives are good, three are crowd but they go, but four are a strict no.

Researchers have been busy developing a harmless, efficacious, cost-effective, versatile vaccine. [Rookie error]

Researchers have been busy developing a harmless, efficacious, cost-effective vaccine. [Acceptable]

Researchers have been busy developing a harmless, efficacious vaccine. [Good]

This holds for cumulative adjectives as well.

Out-of-order adjectives: coordinate adjectives can be moved

Let’s draw curtains on coordinate adjectives with its inverted form, also called out-of-order adjectives. We can shift the position of multiple adjectives from the front of noun to the back of noun to form out-of-order adjectives. Example:

The heavy downpour, unrelenting and merciless, flooded the city.

Learn more about out-of-order adjectives:

2. Cumulative adjectives

In cumulative adjectives, each attributive adjective piles on the adjective after, and then they together (not individually) describe the noun. Example:

His light blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

In this sentence, light and blue individually don’t describe shirt. Light adds on to blue, and they together describe shirt. The shirt is light blue; it’s not light; it’s not blue.

Note that, unlike coordinate adjectives, they don’t take commas in between. Second, we can’t shuffle the positions of adjectives, which implies that they’re dependent on each other and are locked in together for good. So, this would be wrong:

His blue light shirt doesn’t go with the occasion. [Incorrect]

Examples of cumulative adjectives

I received a large chocolate box as gift.

I searched the beautiful square metal box but couldn’t find they keys.

I was served fresh hot tomato soup.

The bank declined the loan because the company doesn’t have a stable financial position.

You may get dissatisfied on seeing a friend’s latest shiny possession that’s better than yours, and you may also want to buy one.

Don’t ignore little weak areas if you aspire top performance.

We can meet the greatest living minds in the world through their ideas contained in books and elsewhere.

His tunnel-focused hard work finally yielded result.

I can’t finish such a large vanilla ice-cream cone on my own. [Nouns too can function as adjective. Here, ice-cream is functioning as an adjective.]

We could see fish in clear turquoise water.

I received a bottle of sparkling red wine in gift.

Common error in identifying cumulative adjectives

In both the sentences below, the noun laptop is modified by similar-looking set of words.

I’ve an amazingly thin laptop.

I’ve a beautiful thin laptop.

But they’re very different.

In the first sentence, amazingly is an adverb modifying the adjective thin, which then together modify laptop. Remember, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, and when modifying adjectives, they’re almost always placed before the adjective, like in this sentence.

In the second sentence, beautiful is an adjective working together with thin, forming cumulative adjective, to modify laptop.

How to identify coordinate from cumulative adjectives?

Although you can identify coordinate adjectives from cumulative adjectives by seeing whether they describe the noun individually or as a group, here are two tests you can use for the same purpose.

Test 1: Does shuffling of adjectives create an awkward meaning?

Change the positions of the adjectives among themselves. If the meaning stays the same, we have coordinate adjectives. But if the meaning gets distorted, we have cumulative adjectives.

Let’s apply this test to the examples we considered earlier (forget the commas for now).

His light blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

The heavy unrelenting merciless downpour flooded the city.

If we change the positions of the adjectives, our sentences would become:

His blue light shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

The unrelenting merciless heavy downpour flooded the city.

The meaning in the first sentence clearly gets distorted: we don’t say blue light for color. Hence, the adjectives are cumulative.

The meaning in the second sentence stays the same whichever order you arrange the three adjectives in. That’s because they individually describe downpour: unrelenting downpour, merciless downpour, and heavy downpour. Hence, the adjectives are coordinate and will require commas in between.

The unrelenting, merciless, heavy downpour flooded the city.

Test 2: Does putting an and between the adjectives make sense?

Put an and between all the adjectives. If the meaning stays the same, we have coordinate adjectives. But if the meaning gets distorted, we have cumulative adjectives.

Let’s apply this test to the same examples. We get:

His light and blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

The heavy and unrelenting and merciless downpour flooded the city.

Is the shirt light and blue? No. The first sentence doesn’t mean to say his shirt is light or his shirt is blue. Either of them individually can’t describe the shirt. The meaning clearly gets distorted if we put an and in between. The adjectives, hence, are cumulative.

Is the downpour heavy and unrelenting and merciless? Yes. Each of them individually can describe downpour. In other words, the meaning stays the same if we put an and in between. The adjectives, hence, are coordinate.

You can use any of the two tests as they’re essentially the same. For practice, try them on the examples listed earlier.

Multiple adjectives in the predicate position

Putting multiple adjectives in predicate position isn’t good writing, so avoid them. But here are few examples just in case you want to see how they’re written. (The first two are coordinate; the third cumulative.)

The downpour that flooded the city is heavy, unrelenting, and merciless. [We use and here like we do in any lists.]

The task was quicker and easier.

My shirt is light blue.

Have we used correct punctuation with the adjectives in this sentence?

Yesterday, the city had a heavy, unrelenting, and merciless downpour.

No.

Even though the sentence has a linking verb (be verb, here), the three adjectives are not predicative adjectives. They’re attributive adjectives coming directly before the noun downpour. Recall that both a noun and an adjective can come in the predicate position in such sentences. Here, it’s a noun, which is then being described by three adjectives. The correctly punctuated sentence would be:

Yesterday, the city had a heavy, unrelenting, merciless downpour. [and removed]

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