Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of pieces by popular internet advice columnist Dear Sugar. Formerly an anonymous figure on therumpus.net, Sugar has has been revealed as author Cheryl Strayed. Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, Wild, is a suprise bestseller garnering critical praise and lots of readers. Her Sugar columns have moved readers to tears for almost two years. I admire her and her insights immensely. And, as ever, I take a tiny delight in the beautiful minutiae of punctuation amid larger and more beautiful issues.
I looked at this very excellent all-type cover and I thought, What about a comma between "tiny" and "beautiful"? Well, it might spoil the graphic design of the cover, but grammatically, were it not a cover, would the phrase need a comma?
Coordinate adjectives have commas betweent them. Cumulative, or hierarchical, adjectives do not. Which is this?
How do we tell the difference? Strayed's columns are marvels of self-revelation and compassion, marked by her willingness to reveal her own growth and pain while opening to the pain and longing of her interlocutors. Strayed's whole approach is marked by deep empathy. Well, we can be empathetic too. What most grammar questioners want first is a quick, practical answer, not a long explanation and lots of words like "cumulative" and "hierarchical."
A quick and practical way to test whether a comma goes between two adjectives: Can you insert an "and" instead of the comma between the words? If yes, use the comma. If no, don't use the comma. Comma = and.
Would we write "a hot, boring day" or "a hot boring day"? Can we insert an "and" between those two adjectives? Would we prefer to spend "a hot and boring day" at the beach? Yes, we would. That comma is correct: It can be replaced by an "and" and the phrase makes sense.
How about "a scorching hot day"? Well, I'd like to spend a scorching hot day at the beach, too, but I wouldn't put a comma in there; "a scorching and hot day" doesn't sound right.
In the first example, "hot" and "boring" both modify the noun "day" in the same way. They are coordinate adjectives, and they modify their noun in a logically parallel way.
One can also switch the order of coordinate adjectives to check on whether a comma can be used, but in my experience, the "and" test is most reliable.
Cumulative/hierarchical adjectives build on each other. When we look at "scorching hot" we can see that scorching actually also modifies "hot"; it builds on it.
So what about Strayed's title? Book titles can be odd things. They are often categorized as display type, and their punctuation and capitalization can be considered as elements of the overall design, rather than as syntactic elements.
In addition, writers are always entitled to reject the suggestions of copyeditors and grammarians. Sometimes this results in lack of clarity or muddled communication, which is always regrettable. Sometimes the result is no more than a few disgruntled prescriptivists. Sometimes even descriptivists mourn the lack of lovely little punctuation marks.
Who knows why there is no comma between the coordinate adjectives "tiny" and "beautiful" in this title? Any number of reasons will do, for these advice columns are tiny, beautiful things, while the heart and compassion they display is large indeed.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.
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