Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part Three

Keep reading to find out how to use commas correctly when your sentence has an introductory word or phrase.
footprints
Image by Sinisa Maric from Pixabay

Everyone knows the value of getting any endeavor off to a good start, whether it’s a new job, a new relationship, or even a blog post. Proverbs about the importance of beginning well abound in many languages. Personally, I’ve always liked the expression “getting off on the right foot,” which is particularly timely now that we can get out more, what with it being summer and with coronavirus restrictions easing.

And of course making a good start also applies to writing. So for today’s installment of our continuing series on commas, let’s look at some rules about correctly using commas when your sentence has an introductory word or phrase. You want the start to be powerful because that’s one of the two strongest positions in the sentence—the other one is the end.

With introductory words:

If you have an introductory word such as an exclamatory Oh or Ah; words like Yes, No, or Well; or if you’re addressing someone by his or her name—all of these need a comma afterwards:

Oh, I love your shoes!

Yes, they look so comfortable.

Jen, where did you buy them?  

red ladies' shoes

With introductory words or short phrases:

Then there are several words or short phrases that, although they’re introductory in nature, tend to pop up in the middle of sentences to clarify something, such as that is, namely, and for example. They usually follow a semicolon or dash, or are enclosed in parentheses. All of them need a comma afterwards:

Many hikers dream of becoming Appalachian Trail thru-hikers; that is, they want to walk the entire trail from start to finish in one trip.

Sports stores usually sell specialized footware—for example, golf shoes and baseball cleats.

My favorite sport (namely, tennis) also requires its own kind of sneakers.   

athletic-shoes-25493_640

Now let’s look at two situations in which the introductory phrase is a bit longer: adverbial phrases and participial phrases. Don’t let the grammatical terms put you off; we’ll explain those as we go.

With introductory adverbial phrases:

A single word that’s an adverb modifies a verb, usually adding information such as when the verb happened (such as late), how it happened (slowly), where it happened (there), and so on. An adverbial phrase does the same thing, just with more words—it modifies the verb of the main sentence. Say we had a sentence like this: 

We sat down to eat dinner.

Now we’d like to add an introductory phrase to elaborate more on when we sat down. So we’ll add the phrase and then a comma before the main part of the sentence:

After walking home from the baseball game, we sat down to eat dinner.

If the introductory adverbial phrase is short, the comma may be omitted:

Until 1986 the tennis balls used at Wimbledon were white. (This is clear without the comma after the introductory Until 1986, which specifies when.)

But make sure that if you do leave it out, you don’t make the sentence unclear:

Before eating, their dogs like to go for a walk.

Here’s the incorrect version so you can compare how the reader could get off to a false start if you left out the comma:

Before eating their dogs like to go for a walk.  (Someone’s eating dogs?! Oh, wait, no…) 

Another possibility would be to rewrite this one so that the adverbial phrase is at the end: Their dogs like to go for a walk before eating.  

And finally, there’s just one “don’t” with this rule: do not include a comma if the phrase comes directly before the verb it modifies:

Through the city streets ran all the marathoners.

In this sentence the subject, the actor, is marathoners; they ran (verb) through the city streets (adverbial phrase specifying where).

men's shoe footprints

With introductory participial phrases:

The terms “participle” and “participial” sound like some serious grammar, but they’re just talking about modifiers made from verbs. Participles can be in the present tense, in which case they end in -ing, or past, usually ending in –ed. Let’s start with a main sentence:

Bryan decided it was time to buy new loafers.

Then we want to add an introductory participial phrase to modify when he decided. This will look a lot like the introductory adverbial phrases we just talked about, and once again, the phrase needs a comma after it, before the main part of the sentence:

Noticing the hole in the toe of his shoe, Bryan decided it was time to buy new loafers.

Here the participle is Noticing.

As with the adverbial phrase, there’s just one exception, and again, you have to zero in on the verb (action) of the main sentence: if the phrase comes directly before the verb (and the sentence is therefore in reverse order), no comma after the participial phrase:

Walking along the boardwalk were throngs of vacationers.

As we noted above, this could be rewritten to turn the sentence around:  Throngs of vacationers were walking along the boardwalk. But you might want to have vacationers at the end in order to emphasize it. 

I hope these few rules will help you always get your sentences off on the right foot! But if you have any questions, please feel free to leave me a comment below—these rules that allow some stylistic leeway can be confusing. A good practice is to complete your first draft without worrying about punctuation rules, then go back and look them up afterwards. And remember to take on just one rule at a time: focus on using it for several days before adding another one into the mix.

I’ll be back next time for our last foray into the complicated world of the comma!

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