Scott Summerville, of Bisbee, Arizona, writes, "Have you noticed the horrid proliferation of unnecessary commas used to separate adjectives? Recent examples from respectable publications include small, gray vest, a beautiful, young girl, and a rich, white lady. I even caught the brilliant David Denby writing about a girl in a bright, pink-and-yellow uniform. It's time to put a stop to this unfortunate trend. Would you help educate the public in this matter?"
I'll try—but I'm afraid the problem is more like a persistent confusion than it is an abominable new trend.
Whether two adjectives should be separated by a comma is not always easy to decide, even though the rule usually given is a simple one. The Chicago Manual of Style puts it this way: "When a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are normally separated by commas. But if the noun and the adjective immediately preceding it are conceived as a unit, such as 'little girl,' 'political science,' or 'glass ceiling,' no comma should be used."
Of course, those possibilities aren't mutually exclusive, nor are they the only ones. Small gray vest, beautiful young girl, rich white lady—no problem. Certain other combinations of adjectives and nouns, however, can leave a writer bewildered. Take "a big fat sigh of relief," for example. Is that a sigh that's big and fat (big, fat sigh)? Or is it a fat sigh that's big (big fat sigh)?
For many years my lodestar with respect to such commas has been the punctuation section of Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage. Not all of the advice in this book is beyond reproach. Nonetheless, Follett's description of the difference between what he calls "superposed" and "parallel" adjectives makes more sense to me than any other discussion of the subject I've seen. Follett says, "Suppose we want to write He was wearing his battered old canvas fishing hat. Are the adjectives here parallel to one another? Far from it. A thoughtful, constructive, entertaining speech is a speech that is (1) thoughtful, (2) constructive, and (3) entertaining; but a battered old canvas fishing hat is not a hat that is (1) battered, (2) old, (3) canvas, and (4) fishing. The adjectives lie in different planes and bear unequal relations to one another and to their noun. One might truthfully say that each modifier belongs to everything that comes after it … There is in fact no place in this sentence for a legitimate comma." If "battered old" doesn't merit a comma, I'd say neither does "big fat."
The idea of "superposing" adjectives, or not, is what I cling to: Does the first adjective apply to everything that comes after it (no comma), or to the noun only (comma, please)? Or might that adjective even be doing something else? Was it a "bright pink-and-yellow" uniform that David Denby was describing, or a "bright-pink and yellow" one? Surely the former. And with that, I think we can breathe a big fat sigh of relief.
Kersten Horn, of Austin, Texas, writes, "I am writing about your response to a question in the April Word Court about whether fiancés can refer to the bride together with the groom. You said it cannot. Your advice is quite misguided. In French the plural male form is fiancés and the plural female form is fiancées. For a couple or a group that consists of both sexes, the default is the male plural form: fiancés. This is the norm in Romance languages. As for alumni and alumnae, which you also discussed, alumnae refers to female graduates, and alumni either to male graduates or to a group consisting of both males and females."
Now that you—and other readers—have mentioned it, I would like to retract some of what I said in April. Let's go back to the passage where I wrote that "anyone who cares whether [alumni and alumnae] mean the same thing in English as they do in Latin, and who recognizes the Latin ending on alumni as a masculine plural" will prefer alumni and alumnae for mixed groups.
Cross out that dubious assertion, and replace it with what you just said about fiancés and alumni. But then please add the following: Until a few decades ago it was common in English, too, to use a masculine plural when referring to a mixed group—and it was standard to use the masculine singular for any person whose sex was unknown. For better or for worse, for richer language or for poorer, American English now tends to reject those solutions. Probably the best way to solve the problem about which my original correspondent wrote—as still other readers pointed out—would be to sidestep it and call the twosome an engaged couple, affianced, or something else in which the words have no gender.
Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.