I 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.