Fun with Scarves and Adjectives (But Where Do We Put the Commas and How Do We Tie the Scarves?)

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One of my scarf owls

As fall draws ever closer, I’ve been looking for new ideas for my pretty sizable collection of scarves. I don’t have as many go-to scarf-tying ideas as I would like, and writing this post was a perfect opportunity to learn one more. An Internet search took me to many different places, but I ended up on Pinterest. I know that many of my friends are fans of video tutorials, but I’ve figured out through trial and error that videos aren’t the best way for me to learn something new. I like a combination of written directions and static images (and lots of practice).

I have a favorite scarf that is patterned with bright flowers (predominantly blue and pink but with some yellow as well) and extremely long . When I’ve worn it in the past, I’ve always just looped it once around my neck and let the ends hang down. This was fine, but it did have the effect of obscuring whatever else I was wearing. In my Pinterest search, I found some options for long scarves and decided to try braiding it. It took a few tries—and I would have liked a bit more direction—but I did eventually learn something new! 

When I find myself with questions about either grammar or fashion, like many, I often turn to the Internet. Last week, I wrote a bit about usage guides and how the more knowledge a writer has, the more aptly they can make use of what they’re seeing in a particular guide, keeping when it was written and who for in mind. Online resources are much the same: what we find when we’re looking for an answer might be more or less reliable and potentially intended for other audiences.

In the course of some copyediting I was recently doing, I wanted to double check comma placement in a list of adjectives. I was pretty certain that I was making the right choice for the text I was working with, but I also wanted to refresh my memory about the convention.

I did an online search for “order of adjectives and commas,” and since I have an idea of what online resources are more reputable, I was able to scan the list and look first at “Commas with Adjectives” from Grammar Girl. Here I found the information that there are two different types of adjectives: coordinate and cumulative. It seems that coordinate adjectives modify their noun separately while cumulative adjectives modify each other on the way to the noun. In other words, coordinate adjectives can be arranged differently and still give the same meaning. You could also include an “and” between the coordinate variety. 

As I was writing this post, I tried to remember what else I knew about gatherings of adjectives. Early in my study of grammar, one of the articles that had the biggest impact on my evolving thoughts was “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” by Patrick Hartwell. In this 1985 article (which I read for the first time in 2010), Hartwell begins with the idea that “the grammar issue, as we will see, is a complicated one. And, perhaps surprisingly, it remains controversial.” And even now, thirty years after publication, the “grammar issue” is every bit as complicated and controversial—which makes me think that that is simply its natural state of being—and that’s more than okay! 

The question of adjective order comes up in this article as well, which is why I’m thinking of it now. In his discussion of multiple meanings of the word “grammar,” Hartwell talks about our innate knowledge as users of the language. This is called “Grammar 1,” and an example that he gives (and that I always remember) is of “the four young French girls.” He writes that “I have never seen a native speaker of English who did not immediately produce the natural order,” and “Grammar 1 is eminently usable knowledge—the way we make our life through language.” What he means is that if the words “four,” “young,” and “French” were in any other order, we would know to either reorder them so that number was first, followed by age and origin.

Notice, too, that Hartwell’s example has no commas, just as in Grammar Girl’s cumulative adjectives examples. Let’s describe my above-mentioned scarf for practice. It’s long and multicolored. What else can we say about it? It’s also polyester, so we can add that to the mix. Utilizing my Grammar 1 (which is something we do without conscious thought), I could say that I have a long multicolored polyester scarf (there are many charts online that show the order of adjectives, but this feels intuitive to me). Would you say the same thing? And what about commas here?

For example, if I said “my scarf with pink, blue, and yellow flowers,” there would be commas between the colors (because they could be reordered and “and” could be used), but if I said “my long multicolored polyester scarf,” there wouldn’t (because those adjectives most likely wouldn’t be reordered—unless I wanted to change the nuances of meaning). But it’s also good to remember that we’re talking about intuitive knowledge and not grammatical “correctness” here.

I’m happy with the result of my scarf braiding, FullSizeRender (16)and it’s always exciting to have a new thing to try with a fall outfit. Just as Grammar 1 lets us know that we’re already experts in our language use in so many ways, learning a fresh way to wear something I already own updates my wardrobe without the expense of buying something new. So take stock of what you already have—you might be surprised at how much there is and how much you know!

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4 thoughts on “Fun with Scarves and Adjectives (But Where Do We Put the Commas and How Do We Tie the Scarves?)

  1. That is very interesting that native speakers don’t need to be taught how to order adjectives. I remember teaching this lesson in an ESL class, in which the rule was “Size, color, pattern,” when talking about clothes. Long green plaid scarf for instance. It’s funny to think the adjective order actually makes a difference but somehow it does….

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