Posts Tagged Introductory phrase

A Dramatic Comma

I came across this troubling sentence today:

“Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems, if a solution is possible.”

Take a look at that comma after problems. Should that comma be there?

Zen Comma Rule H says, “Don’t separate the descriptive clause or phrase if it occurs at the end of the sentence.” On the other hand, Rule W says, “Use commas to separate final descriptions that don’t refer to the immediately preceding text.” Which rule applies to the sentence?

The answer is Rule H. The comma is wrong. Now, let’s figure out why.

“If a solution is possible” describes the action “can find.” It establishes a condition for the action to occur, making it an adverbial descriptive phrase. (adverbial = modifies the action in some way) This role of the descriptive phrase is more apparent when we move it to the beginning of the sentence, as follows.

“If a solution is possible, Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems.”

Following Zen Comma Rule G, the descriptive phrase in the modified sentence is properly followed by a comma. The phrase is clearly describing the action “can find.” The comma serves two purposes here:

(1) indicate that the introductory description is finished and the main idea is about to start, and

(2) separate the introductory phrase from the subject that follows.

However, when we put the introductory phrase at the end of the sentence, neither purpose applies, so no comma is needed. Thus, the original sentence, with the descriptive phrase at the end, does not need the comma.

But why doesn’t comma Rule W apply? As we saw when re-ordering the sentence, the descriptive phrase “if a solution is possible” refers to “can find a solution to staffing problems.” With the descriptive phrase at the end of the sentence, it does refer to the immediately preceding text, and we don’t need the comma.

If the comma isn’t needed, why is it there? I have two answers to that question.

First, it may be an error. Maybe the writer does not know how to use commas well and made a mistake.

Second, it may be there to force a pause for dramatic effect. The writer may have added the comma to emphasize the descriptive phrase. A better way to do this is as follows:

“Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems—if a solution is possible.”

The comma is wrong, but it might serve a purpose, assuming that the writer intended this effect. To give the writer the benefit of my doubt, I will assume the writer added the comma for dramatic effect.

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Commas with Parenthetical Expressions

RULE AA:
Separate parenthetical expressions with commas.

Definition of Parenthetical Expression. These are expressions that do not add essential content for understanding the sentence, such as an off-topic comment or a phrase inserted in a sentence that breaks the flow of the idea. These expressions may be placed in parentheses; hence the name.

Rule AA is something of a catch-all, a grammatical version of “other duties as assigned.” Many phrases and clauses are considered parenthetical expressions, including appositives, direct addresses, interpolated asides, and interjections.

Basically, any expression, description, comment, etc. that interrupts the flow of ideas, that can be moved around in the sentence, and that can be placed in parentheses without confusing the reader needs to be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.

Sample 12.1.   The new mall, I have heard, will be huge.

In sample 12.1, the parenthetical expression is I have heard. This is not part of the idea being expressed in the sentence. It can be moved to the front or end of the sentence. And it could be placed in parentheses. As such, it is separated from the rest of the sentence with commas, one before and one after. Also, if I had written it at the end of the sentence, I would still need to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

Sample 12.2.   This economic forecast model, compared to other models, shows flat growth.

In sample 12.2, the parenthetical expression is compared to other models. Wherever I put it in the sentence, it will need to be separated by commas.

Sample 12.4.   Compared to other models, this economic forecast model shows flat growth.
Sample 12.5.   This economic forecast model shows flat growth, compared to other models.

Sample 12.4 uses the parenthetical expression as an introductory adverbial phrase (Rule G), and sample 12.5 uses it as a non-grammatical final description (Rule X). Because it is a parenthetical expression, no matter where it is in the sentence, it needs to be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.


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4 Ways to Use Commas with Final Descriptions

Zen Comma Rule W: Use commas to separate final descriptions that don’t refer to the immediately preceding text.

To vary sentence structure, you may put a descriptive phrase at the end of a sentence. However, readers will usually link descriptions to the closest preceding text. This is not always accurate, so we use a comma to prevent the reader from doing this.

The comma separates the description from the preceding text to show that they are not connected.

The club is disbanding, based on this letter.

In this sample, the letter states that the club is disbanding. If we leave out the comma, the sentence will state that the club is disbanding because of the letter, as seen below.

The club is disbanding based on this letter.

This indicates that the letter, or its contents, is causing the club to disband because disbanding is described by based on this letter. However, with the comma we know that disbanding is not described by based on this letter, leading to the desired interpretation.

This next sample works in a similar way.

He saw the corpse, swimming in the lake.

If we leave out the comma, the reader will think swimming in the lake is a description of the corpse, as if the corpse were swimming in the lake. Rather, swimming in the lake is a description of He. To prevent the incorrect, and odd, interpretation, we must separate the final description with a comma.

This bring us to the next type of comma uses with final descriptions.

Zen Comma Rule X: Use commas to separate non-grammatical final descriptions.

In other cases, the final description is not grammatically connected to the preceding sentence. Similar to Rule W, this can happen when the final description refers to the subject or main verb but not to the words that immediately precede the description. Consider this example:

He drove all day, unable to wait longer.

In this sample, unable to wait longer describes the subject He, not drove all day. Unlike previous examples, we cannot remove the comma and still have a grammatically correct sentence, as follows.

He drove all day unable to wait longer. (grammatically incorrect sentence)

These are a form of free modifiers, a descriptive phrase that can be moved around in the sentence. If they can’t be moved around without making the sentence confusing, they are not free modifiers and don’t need a comma. If they can be moved around, they are free modifiers, and they need commas.

Zen Comma Rule Y: Use commas to separate final coordinate expressions.

We know to put a comma between coordinate adjectives. This can also affect how we use commas with final descriptions. If the final two descriptive phrases or expressions equally describe the same thing, they are coordinate, and we separate them with a comma, as seen here:

The legislation is dead, not delayed.

To show that dead and not delayed are coordinate, we can break up the sentence as follows:

The legislation is dead. The legislation is not delayed.

Here, we see that dead and not delayed both describe legislation. We could write this in two sentences, as I have here, or we can combine them and end the sentence with both descriptions. When I combine the sentences, these two descriptions are coordinate and require a comma.

Zen Comma Rule Z: Use a comma to indicate a shift in focus at the end of the sentence.

This is fairly simple. Take a look at this sample:

The audience seemed tired, an understandable response to the boring 3-hour lecture.

The main sentence is about the audience. However, the final description is not so much about the audience as it is about the boring lecture. This is a shift in the focus of the sentence. As such, it is separated by a comma.


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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Commas with Titles and Names

You just wrote a letter to Mr. Wilson, a business contact. Now, before you send it, you proofread it. Of course, you pay particular attention to the commas because most punctuation errors are comma errors.

Commas with Names

Let’s look at three of the sentences you wrote.

Wrong: “Mr. Wilson I am sure you will recognize the benefits of this plan.”
Wrong: “When you receive the package Mr. Wilson, please let me know.”
Wrong: “Thank you for your time Mr. Wilson.”

Each of these sentences has  the same type of error: missing commas.

Zen Comma Rule M tells us “When directly addressing someone, place commas around his or her name.” The sample sentences above didn’t do this, and they are, as a result, incorrect.

The letter is to Mr. Wilson. You are directly addressing him by name. You need to separate the name from the rest of the sentence because the name is interrupting the flow of the sentence. In this way, the name is a type of parenthetical expression, and, like all parenthetical expressions, it needs to be set apart with commas.

The first one is easy to fix. You just need to add a comma after the name, as follows.

Right: “Mr. Wilson, I am sure you will recognize the benefits of this plan.”

The second sentence is a bit more complicated. It already has a comma after the name. Maybe you put in that comma to follow Zen Comma Rule G: Put a comma after introductory clauses and phrases. Maybe you followed the risky and often mistaken strategy of putting a comma where you pause. You paused after the name and put in a comma, but you might not pause before the name. The comma you added is correct, but to make the sentence correct, you also need one before the name, as follows.

Right: “When you receive the package, Mr. Wilson, please let me know.”

The final sentence is also pretty easy. You just need to add a comma before the name to separate it from the rest of the sentence:

Right: “Thank you for your time, Mr. Wilson.”

Commas with Titles

Mr. Wilson is a doctor and the chairman of you community organization. Because you are using his titles (i.e., doctor, chairman), you might need commas here, too.

Using commas with titles is the same as using commas with names. You need to decide whether you are using the title as a name. If you are addressing someone by his or her title, or if the title is part of the name, then you use commas as above. Otherwise, you don’t need the commas (and probably not capital letters). Here are two more sentences you wrote.

Wrong: “Doctor I saw you leaving your neighbor’s house after midnight.”
Wrong: “If I were you Mr. Chairman I would contact my lawyers.”

In both sentences, you are addressing Mr. Wilson directly. Rather than using his name, you are using his title. These sentences also need commas, as seen here.

Right: “Doctor, I saw you leaving your neighbor’s house after midnight.”
Right: “If I were you, Mr. Chairman, I would contact my lawyers.”

Summary

That’s all you need to know about this type of comma use. If you are directly addressing the reader by name or title, put the name or title in commas.


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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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