Write Right: Commas, Adjectives, and Mashed Potatoes

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Write RightI thought if I were to address a tricky adjective question, I might as well address a tricky comma question, too. The question goes something like this: Is garlic (or chipotle) mashed potatoes the correct phrasing? At first glance, the question seems simple. The phrase “garlic mashed potatoes” sounds correct. Is it, though? I thought so until I read a convincing argument at Joshua Merritt’s blog that pondered if “mashed garlic potatoes” made more sense. Suddenly, I wasn’t quite as sure which phrasing was correct, and I found myself digging through my grammar handbook.

Merritt’s pondering has not resulted in a change of phrasing; the correct phrasing is “garlic mashed potatoes.” The ordering of the three words has to do with whether the adjectives are equal or unequal. Equal adjectives modify the same word equally. Equal adjectives are separated from each other either by commas or “and.” Unequal adjectives are unequal. One of the adjectives – the one nearer the noun in question – is more closely related to the noun in meaning than the other adjective. In such an instance, the nearer adjective and the noun form a unit (mashed potatoes) that is modified by the first adjective (garlic). Unequal adjectives should not be separated by a comma or an “and.”

A few tests exist that help with punctuating two or more adjectives. The first test asks if the adjectives can be reversed without changing meaning. “Garlic mashed potatoes” may not be the best example. The meaning changes very little if the two adjectives are reversed; however, it does change. The second questions asks if “and” can be inserted between the two adjectives without changing meaning. Aha, the crux of the matter. Adding “and” between “garlic” and “mashed” does change the meaning. People are now eating garlic and mashed potatoes, which is fine if they’re attempting to ward off vampires. Most people, though, aren’t too worried about vampires and prefer garlic mashed potatoes. It doesn’t leave quite the same lingering taste or breath that garlic and mashed potatoes do. Thus, the two adjectives are unequal. They require no comma between the two of them, and they should be written as “garlic mashed potatoes.”

Have a question about adjectives or commas? Let me know in the comments. As always, I look forward to your writing or grammar questions. You can submit them in a comment, via email, or in a post on my Facebook page.

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Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is the director of editorial services at Tenacity5 Media and the founder of Write Right. She's a copywriter, editor, poet, and artist. You can find Erin on .

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19 comments
barrettrossie
barrettrossie

This post makes me very hungry, and eager to add garlic to my leftover mashed potatoes from last night.

magriebler
magriebler

Thanks for this wonderful mental exercise, Erin. It gave me clarity on a subject near and dear to my heart. (Poor comma: so maligned, so abused.) It also made me hungry.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

The finer points of grammar and punctuation are difficult to master. Each time I read a review of a rule it gets me a little bit closer to having it down. Mastering this subject is a long road to travel, but the better I get, the more I feel it helps my own writing.

Latest blog post: The Room with the Views

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Thanks Erin! Nice breakdown of a commonly broken rule. 

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@timbo1973 Could I make things clearer somehow? Maybe the paragraph needs to be revised further.

Pizza! We're going to have a smorgasbord. 

I was a picky eater when I was a kid, too. College cured me of it.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@barrettrossie Potluck at my house! You can bring the mashed potatoes; I have homemade bread; and @magriebler has peanut butter and jelly. We shall feast like kings and queens. ;)

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@magriebler Yay! The post was a success then, although I didn't mean to make you hungry. It is getting close to lunchtime, though...

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@ExtremelyAvg They are difficult to master, but they do help with the writing. Promise. :) Your willingness to study them shows your care for your craft and your desire to continue improving as a writer.

I like that you used "finer points" rather than rules.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@timbo1973 Okay, I changed the paragraph a bit - moved some sentences, changed a few words. Same old, same old. :)

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@timbo1973 I might tinker with it some. I have a few ideas that might help with flow.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@barrettrossie @magriebler And you didn't invite us? Fine. I'm not sharing my homemade bread then. ;)

If you're ever in Austin, you'll have to go to Hopdoddy's.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@magriebler I made white bread this week. The other one, I made potato bread. So good.

Erin F.
Erin F. moderator

@magriebler If you were at my house, we could have peanut butter (preferably crunchy) and jelly on homemade bread. Now I'm hungry. 

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