A Cauldron of Commas

Question: How do you put a lot of description in one sentence?
Answer: Use commas correctly. 

The following sentence from Master of the Cauldron by David Drake shows how this is done. 

They thrust the blades down into the sand, bracing the vehicle, which, for the moment, rested only on its narrow keel. 

This sentence has 4 well-placed commas, making the sentence clear and easy to read. When we parse this sentence, we find that each comma serves to separate units of meaning so that the reader can identify them easily and keep them organized mentally. This is the purpose of the comma. Commas create clarity. 

Let’s look at these commas individually and see what they are doing. 

Comma Use One

The comma before “bracing the vehicle” indicates that this descriptive phrase does not describe the immediately preceding text. With this comma, we know that “bracing the vehicle” does not describe “sand.” Instead, it describes the entire action of thrusting the blades into the sand. 

Without the comma, the reader will think the sand is bracing the vehicle because “bracing the vehicle” will be linked to sand. This would be the same as writing “…into the sand that was bracing the vehicle.” The comma breaks that linkage and helps the reader arrive at the correct interpretation. 

This is often what’s happening when we have a descriptive phrase that starts with a participle at the end of the sentence. This example from Zen Comma works the same way. 

The club is disbanding, based on this letter. 

The descriptive phrase starting with a participle is “based on this letter.” It does not describe “disbanding,” meaning the club is not disbanding because of this letter. Rather, it describes the entire action of the club disbanding. 

(Zen Comma Rule W. You can read more about this type of comma use in “Use of Commas on the Bed.”) 

Comma Use Two

This one is actually simple to explain. It separates the non-restrictive phrase (“which…rested only on its narrow keel”) from the word it describes (“vehicle”). 

Most non-restrictive phrases start with “which,” and all non-restrictive phrases are separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. Non-restrictive phrases provide non-essential information. To make sure the reader knows that they are not restrictive (i.e., essential), we separate them with commas. 

This example from Zen Comma works the same way: 

The iPhone, which was developed by Apple Computers, is a remarkable piece of technology. 

In this sample, the non-restrictive, non-essential description is “which was developed by Apple Computers.” As you can see, it is surrounded by commas to tell the reader when it begins and ends. 

(Zen Comma Rule T. You can read more about this type of comma use in “Hendrix Knows When to Use Commas.”) 

Comma Uses Three and Four

These commas work in a pair to surround the descriptive adverbial phrase “for the moment.” This description is an interjection. Depending on how you think about it, you might, instead, think it is an interpolated aside, which is an interjected thought. In either case, it gets separated from the rest of the sentence with commas, both before and after. 

If it is an interjection, then it is similar to this example from Zen Comma

I have, alas, more than I need. 

If it is an interpolated aside, then it is similar to this example from Zen Comma

The legislative budget proposal, in spite of our protests, will become law. 

(Zen Comma Rules I and L. You can read more about these types of commas uses in “Dancing with the Stars Commas” [interjections] and “Bumbo Makes a Side Comment” [asides].) 


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

Your Writing Companion: Our e-book with samples from each of our writing guides: Get the free e-book (PDF, 45 pages) or purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

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