We’re In Agreement

By Paulo Ordoveza from Washington, DC - Pandora Are Serious Cat, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3446628

You most likely remember that about ten to fifteen years ago there was an Internet phenomenon known as LOLcats: memes featuring pictures of cats with silly, grammatically challenged captions. Perhaps the idea behind the bad grammar was to imitate baby talk—but whatever the reason, it worked. We all laughed at them and probably shared many of them on social media.

Of course all native speakers of English, as well as non-natives who have mastered the basics, recognize that these sentences are not grammatically correct: 

I are serious cat.

Nobody hear you scream.

The problem here is that the subject and verb do not agree: singular subjects need a verb with a singular ending, and plural subjects need a verb with a plural ending. If we were to correct those examples, they would look like this:

I am [a] serious cat.

Nobody hears you scream.

And in English, we actually have it pretty easy when it comes to verb endings: in the present tense, almost all verbs do not need an ending, except for -s or sometimes -es for third person singular (he/she/it):

I hear                                    We hear

You hear                              You hear

He/she/it hears                  They hear

Of course the verb to be has to be difficult, as always:

I am                                       We are                                                 I was                     We were

You are                                 You are                                               You were               You were

He/she/it is                         They are                                             He/she/it was       They were

When you have a short, simple sentence, such as those above, it’s easy to spot a lack of subject-verb agreement. But how about this one—is it in agreement or not?

The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books were considerable.

This sentence is in fact not in agreement, and here’s how you can tell: you have to pare the sentence down to just its main subject and main verb. It starts out with the subject, The difficulty, which is then followed by a long prepositional phrase which modifies it: of reading all those long, tedious books. If we remove that phrase, we’re left with The difficulty were considerable, which we can tell right away is not grammatical—it should of course be The difficulty was considerable. Even though the plural books is the word right before the verb was, it doesn’t govern the verb—the true subject is the singular difficulty.

So put back together, the correct version is:

The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books was considerable.

Figuring out subject-verb agreement can get even trickier in sentences with relative clauses, that is, phrases that start with wh- words such as who and which.

The impact, which current predictions indicate are coming soon, could be huge.

This sentence is not in agreement either, but in all fairness, it is difficult to spot. The first few times I saw examples like this I could not find the error until it was pointed out to me. But it’s because of the relative clause which current predictions indicate are coming soon: phrases of this type usually do not repeat the word being modified. No wonder it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on!

So let’s pick this apart: the main subject of the sentence is The impact. When we get to the relative clause which modifies it, we have to mentally re-word it briefly, re-inserting the subject, the impact, which gives us: current predictions indicate [the impact] are coming soon. Ah, ha! Now we can see that it should in fact be

The impact, which current predictions indicate is coming soon, could be huge.

If you’d like to read in a lot (and I mean a LOT) more depth about how to get to the bottom of complex constructions such as these, I highly recommend a book that has helped me tremendously: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.) This book is a must-have if you’re serious about improving your writing. But best of all, Pinker writes with a lot of humor—this book is anything but dry!

Can you find any sentences “in the wild” that are not in agreement? Please share them below!

Working Out on the Elliptical

For several years my husband and I owned an elliptical machine—you know, the piece of equipment that has two large pedals that move in an oval-shaped path. I actually used it quite a bit; it was just the ticket for a good workout on days when the weather was cold or rainy (or both). And the low-impact design helped me stay in decent shape while still being kind to my aging knees.

Believe it or not, grammar has its own elliptical machine. Just like its workout equipment counterpart, elliptical construction is low-impact—it’s pretty easy to do—but it can help keep your sentences from picking up too much weight.

To show you what I mean, let’s quickly revisit our last installment, where we talked about the importance of parallel construction–that is, making grammatical structure similar:

(Not parallel) I post to my blog every two weeks, and my husband gets me to edit his blog.   

(Parallel) I post to my blog every two weeks, and I edit my husband’s blog.

The first sentence is not parallel because the two clauses—the two parts—have two different subjects: I in the first, but my husband in the second. We’ve made this sentence parallel by making I the subject of both. But now it’s a bit repetitive, isn’t it? Because we have plenty of context, we can trim the repeated elements from the second part of the sentence, leaving us with:

(Parallel and elliptical) I post to my blog every two weeks and edit my husband’s.

This is elliptical construction, also known as ellipsis: leaving out the parts that can be recovered from the context. In the second half of the sentence the reader can infer the subject I and the remainder of the phrase my husband’s, which is blog.

Not all sentences where you use parallel construction will also need ellipsis, but it’s always something to consider in order to keep your writing as tight as possible. Let’s run through one more example:

(Not parallel) Anna likes Italian food, and her family agrees with her.

To make this sentence parallel, let’s make Italian food the object of both clauses:

(Parallel) Anna likes Italian food, and her family likes Italian food too.

And yes, I’m making these examples obvious so you can see how the ellipsis works. We do it so naturally that it sounds repetitive and clunky without it, doesn’t it? Anyhow, here’s the final version:

(Parallel and elliptical) Anna likes Italian food and her family does too.

When creating elliptical structure, just be sure to always double-check that you haven’t removed so much information that your sentence could be ambiguous. For example:

Sally likes John more than Bob.

Does this mean that 1, Sally likes John more than she likes Bob, or that 2, Sally likes John more than Bob likes John? If you mean 1, a good elliptical sentence would be:

Sally likes John more than she does Bob.

For option 2, it would look like this:

Sally likes John more than Bob does.

By the way, there’s one other kind of ellipsis out there—it’s the punctuation mark that consists of three periods in a row used to show the location of missing words in a direct quote, or to indicate a long pause or speech trailing off.

And finally, if you’d like to go down a grammar nerd rabbit hole, check out this article, with no fewer than six different types of elliptical construction sorted by their technical names. I had no idea there were so many. It may sound daunting, but as it turns out, we use these sorts of constructions all the time quite naturally, especially when we talk.   

Please feel free to ask any questions or to share your favorite examples of elliptical construction below!

Parallel Universes

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If you’re into science fiction, you’ve probably noticed that a very popular theme is that of parallel universes. The idea that there could be another reality containing an exact or near-exact duplicate of everything has a powerful pull on the imagination. And just this past spring, NASA scientists conducting experiments in Antarctica uncovered evidence that a parallel universe might in fact exist. 

Our brains like parallelism so much that it even carries over into grammar, of all things. What am I talking about? Have a look at these sentences and see if you can pinpoint what’s wrong with them: 

My hobbies are cooking, hikes, and to read.

The goals of the workshop are finishing a first draft of your novel and to proofread it.

Many people will recognize that something isn’t quite right with these examples, but they can’t figure out exactly what. The problem is that they are not parallel in structure. In the first example, cooking is a gerund (a noun formed from a verb by adding -ing); hikes is a plural noun, and to read is the infinitive form of the verb. To fix it, we have to make all three items in the list conform to one grammatical form. The solution here is pretty simple—we can use all gerunds:

My hobbies are cooking, hiking, and reading.

Lack of parallel structure might be a little bit harder to spot in the second example since the non-parallel elements are a bit further apart, but if you look closely, you’ll see that once again we have a gerund heading up the phrase finishing a first draft of your novel but the infinitive to proofread in the second phrase. This time let’s make them both infinitives to fix it:

The goals of the workshop are to finish a first draft of your novel and to proofread it.

The parallel versions read a lot better, don’t they? The reason this works so well is because our brains tend to hold what we’ve just read in short-term memory to use as a template for deciphering what comes next. When the grammatical forms are not similar, the mental processing takes longer.

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There are two other situations where you should always doublecheck to make sure your constructions are parallel. One is when you use paired conjunctions such as either…orneither…nornot only…but also (sometimes called correlative conjunctions). Here’s a sentence with correlative conjunctions that’s not parallel:

Either our business will pull through the economic downturn or we will have to close it.

Check out the first phrase: Either our business will pull through the economic downturn—the subject is business. But in the second, we will have to close it, the subject is we.

Here’s a possible solution, making we the subject of both phrases and business the object:

Either we will pull our business through the economic downturn or we will have to close it.

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And speaking of business, if that’s what you write for, you might use bullets to make lists easier to read. That’s a great idea—but to maximize the edge that bullets give your reader, you have to make sure—you got it—that they’re parallel.

Check out this non-parallel example:

Our new application guides you through every step of your vacation planning, including:

  • Choosing a destination
  • How to find cheap flights
  • Hotels and reservations
  • Where to eat
  • How do you know which are the best attractions   

Here we have many different kids of grammatical structures, and the constant shifting going on in your brain slows you down when you try to read them. Here’s one possible solution—and notice how in this case we have to reword some of the bullets in order to make them parallel:

Our new application guides you through every step of your vacation planning, including:

  • Choosing a destination
  • Finding cheap flights
  • Booking hotels
  • Selecting restaurants
  • Pinpointing the best attractions

Finally, parallel construction is not just a plaything for fussy grammar nerds; it’s an extremely effective literary device. Look for it in good literature and famous quotes, and you’ll soon start seeing it everywhere, such as:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

  – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“ …government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

 – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Parallel is powerful! Please feel free to share your favorite examples below. 

The Juuuust Right Word

Now that it’s October, in most parts of the country autumn has well and truly set in. But here in Florida, although it’s cooled down a bit, it’s definitely still grilling weather. I don’t know exactly what our neighbors were cooking last Sunday afternoon, but it smelled wonderful.

As I sat on our patio getting hungrier with each passing minute, my brain started searching for the right noun to describe the mouth-watering breezes tickling my nose and my appetite. I mentally ran through a list:

Odor…scent…fragrance…smell…finally I came up with a word that satisfied me: aroma

Then I had to go back and figure out what was not quite right about those other words I’d considered. Odor seems mostly negative—maybe it’s the association with the phrase body odor. Scent wasn’t bad, although it could make you think of a bloodhound tracking something. Fragrance was a bit better since it’s more positive, but I associate that word more with non-food-related pleasant smells such as flowers and perfume.

Smell is kind of a funny word. It seems like it should be fairly neutral, yet if you sniff the air and ask, What’s that smell?, it usually implies that the smell is bad or at least unexpected or strange in some way. But you can modify it to express that it’s a good smell or even, like my neighbors’ dinner, a wonderful smell.   

The word I finally settled on, aroma, fit the bill because it’s generally used to describe pleasant smells, usually in connection with food. A few days ago in my reading I came across a reference to the aroma of flowers, and it sounded just wrong to me.

Now your mileage may vary; maybe these words have different nuances for you. But the point is to think carefully about the words that you choose, especially when describing subjective experiences such as sensory or emotional states. You can consult a dictionary of course, but usually a better bet is to run them past your friends and family (which is exactly what I did in writing this post).

Sometimes the difference between words can be subtle but powerful. Consider this sentence that I recently edited for a friend who is a hypnotist. Originally it read:

Bad habits are easier to break if you use the power of your subconscious mind.

I changed it to:

Bad habits are easier to break when you use the power of your subconscious mind.

Changing just that one small word—if to when—drastically alters the implications of the sentence. The word if suggests that the reader might not be able to tap into the power of the subconscious, whereas when is much more confident that the reader will be able to do so and, consequently, be able to make the positive changes that he or she is seeking.

And on a humorous note, check out this amusing explanation about the distinction between complete and finished!

Do you agree with my assessment of odor, scent, fragrance, smell, and aroma? Does the aroma of flowers sound strange to you, too? What other clusters of words with subtle shades of meaning have you encountered in your reading or writing? Please share your thoughts or any questions below!

In Good Condition

Once again, my musical bent intruded on the writing of this installment about the use of the conditional. We’re going to be focusing a lot on the word if today, which of course immediately made me think of this song from the early ’70s. But if you need something a bit more funky to get you going, here’s another good option

OK, yes, I admit it: I’m old. 

Anyway, most conditional sentences have an easily recognizable structure: they start with an if clause (phrase containing a subject and verb) that sets up a hypothetical world, then are rounded out by another clause describing what happens in that world.

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Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

So let’s start out by looking at the if clause. Sometimes it describes a situation in which the speaker (or writer) is either leaving the options open or doesn’t know if the if clause is true or not. This is known as the open conditional:

If Kurt likes that song, he’ll watch the video. (The speaker doesn’t know if Kurt likes it or not, but is confident that if he does, he’ll watch the video.)

If Kurt liked that song, he watched the video. (Again, the speaker doesn’t know if Kurt liked it or not, but is that confident that if he did, he watched the video.)

In these two sentences the tenses of the verbs show only the time of the action, the same way that verb tense does in most of the sentences we usually construct: likes indicates action in the present; he’ll watch, the future; and liked and watched, action in the past. So verb tense rules in the open conditional are flexible and work pretty much normally. 

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Image by songpon pirom from Pixabay

So far, so good. Things get more interesting, however, when we start exploring the opposite of the open conditional, called the remote conditional. Here the speaker either knows for certain that the hypothetical world created in the if clause is not true or thinks it very unlikely:

If Kurt liked that song, he would watch the video. (The speaker thinks it’s very unlikely that Kurt likes or liked it. The clause he would watch the video describes what might happen on the off chance that Kurt in fact likes or liked it.)

If Kurt had liked that song, he would have watched the video. (Again, the speaker thinks it’s very unlikely that Kurt liked it. And he would have watched the video implies that he didn’t watch it, serving as proof that he didn’t like the song.)

By the way, we saw this same concept of remoteness in our last installment on the irrealis mood. And, as with the irrealis, remoteness in the conditional is reflected in the verb tense.

Now let’s turn to those verb tenses, where we’ll find that the structure of the remote conditional is more rigid than that of the open. Notice that in the examples both if clauses are in past tense; as a matter of fact, in the second example it’s in the past perfect tense, the “past of the past”: had liked. In the second clauses, we have the auxiliary (“helping”) verb would, which is the past tense of will. Would is by far the most common past tense auxiliary to show up in the second clause, but it can also be should, could, or might—the past tense forms of shall, can, or may.

Now here’s what’s odd about the remote conditional: the use of the past tense in the if clause does not necessarily mean that the action happened in the past. Its only function is to mark remoteness. Notice that I said that in the first example’s if clause, If Kurt liked that song, that the speaker doesn’t think that Kurt likes or liked the song. In this case, we can’t determine the time of the action without more context.

But another example will show the tense oddness much more clearly:

If you waited until the singer’s birthday next week to post the video, you would get more views.  

Since we have next week in the if clause, clearly the action did not take place in the past. The past tense verb waited shows only the remoteness—that the speaker is pretty sure that the you addressed won’t wait to post the video.  

Finally, what about our example with that past perfect verb in the if clause?

If Kurt had liked that song, he would have watched the video.

Remember that in the remote conditional, the past tense shows only remoteness, not past time. So if we want to express that Kurt liked the song in the past, we have to take the past tense for remoteness and add another past tense to it. This gives us the past perfect (the “past of the past”), which can always be recognized by the auxiliary had.

By now your brain is probably ready about to explode—I know mine certainly is! The good news is that most native speakers of English construct these conditional sentences correctly most of the time. But it’s always a good idea to give them a second look to make sure that you’re conveying what you intended, particularly whether the if clause should be open or remote. There’s just one fairly common pitfall to avoid with the remote conditional: remember that the auxiliary would goes only in the second clause, never in the if clause:

Wrong: If you would have waited to post that video, you would have gotten more views.  

Right: If you had waited to post that video, you would have gotten more views.  

And if you can’t make heads or tails out of what I’ve said, here’s another explanation of the conditional that might help. Please feel free to leave a comment below with any questions or any good examples of conditionals you come across in your reading!

Shifting Moods

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Hopefully your mood today is like the happy emoji in the picture. When I started drafting this post, I was smiling like that–until I got deeper into my research and discovered that I screwed up when I previewed the subject for you last time around. I said that the irrealis is a subset of the subjunctive mood, and a counterpart to the mandative subjunctive that we were talking about in that post. Well, it turns out—it’s not. The irrealis is actually a whole separate mood—hence the title of this installment. 

(That, by the way, is one of the things I love about doing these blogs—I learn a lot from the research!)

So let’s backpedal a little bit and finish up the subjunctive mood, and then we’ll go on to the irrealis. To review quickly, the mandative subjunctive we talked about last time is for demands, requirements, requests, recommendations, or suggestions, such as:

Last week Carol insisted that Pat go to the movies with her.

We request that the attendant lock the garage at night.

The same subjunctive form—the unmarked form of the verb, with no endings, no matter which person, or singular or plural—can also be used for hypothetical situations where there is a decent chance of the statement coming true, such as:   

Brian made back-up copies of the report lest it be accidentally deleted.

We made sure to stock up on supplies for fear that the hurricane hit hard. 

Jenny is always remarkably patient with her toddler, whether he be sleepy, grumpy, or rambunctious.

These might sound rather formal or just a bit strange—but they’re all correct. And of course they could all be written in the more everyday indicative mood, such as Jenny is always remarkably patient with her toddler, whether he is sleepy, grumpy, or rambunctious. Nevertheless, you can see that in each case there’s a reasonable chance that the hypotheticals could come true: the report could get deleted; the hurricane could hit hard; and Jenny’s little boy probably goes through all those moods (and many more) in the course of a typical day.

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The irrealis (“not real”) mood, however, is for hypotheticals that are clearly not true or have very little chance of ever coming true. In English, the only place that the irrealis is grammatically marked is with the use of were, such as in this phrase that we say all the time without even thinking about it:

If I were you…

Have you ever heard anyone say If I was you? I’ve lived in several different regions of the U.S., and I don’t think I ever have. But you get the point—when you say If I were you, you clearly are not the other person to whom you’re speaking, nor will you ever be.

But how about this one:

If Blake were better qualified, he would get the job.

As opposed to:

If Blake was better qualified, he would get the job.

The first variant implies that Blake will most likely never be able to improve his qualifications enough, but the second leaves the possibility a bit more open. So this is another function of the irrealis mood’s were—to convey a sense of what grammarians term factual remoteness.

And that leads us very neatly into our closely related subject for next time: the conditional. Until then, be on the lookout for hypotheticals in both subjunctive and irrealis moods, paying particular attention to whether they’re situations that could reasonably come true or not. If you find some good examples, please share them below!

In the (Subjunctive) Mood

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A few weeks ago, I got to do a fascinating interview (via Skype) with a PhD candidate in the UK. So what does that have to do with legendary Big Band leader Glenn Miller? The subject of the interview was one of the grammatical moods in English, namely, the subjunctive. Since I have a bit of a musical background, any mention of “mood” always reminds me of the iconic Glenn Miller tune “In the Mood.” (Click on the link if you’d like to listen to it while reading this post!)

But what IS the subjunctive mood? Unless you’re a hardcore grammar nerd, you might have never even heard of it—but if you’re a native speaker of American English, you probably use it correctly all the time. When we say that subjunctive is a mood, it means that it indicates the speaker’s attitude towards the verb. It’s not a tense (time category) such as present or past. In English, there are basically two varieties of subjunctive: mandative and irrealis. Today we’ll focus on the first one.

The mandative subjunctive is for demands, requirements, requests, recommendations, or suggestions. Its form is simple: it’s the unmarked form of the verb, with no endings. You can also think of it as the infinitive without to. In other words, it will always look exactly the same, no matter the person or whether it’s singular or plural:

I go                        We go

You go                  You go

He/she/it go        They go

As you look through these, they all probably look and sound fine—except for he/she/it go (as opposed to he/she/it goes). The only other time that mandative subjunctive is obvious is with be:

I be                         We be

You be                  You be

He/she/it be        They be

And those are the only times that it has a visibly different form in English. Otherwise, the mandative subjunctive is virtually undetectable—which is probably why most people are unaware of it.

So what does this look like in action? Check these out:

Last week Carol insisted that Pat go to the movies with her.

We request that the attendant lock the garage at night.

Here I’ve used third person singular (he/she/it) form to make the mandative subjunctive obvious: go instead of goes; lock instead of locks. In first or second person, here’s what it would look like:

Last week Carol insisted that I go to the movies with her.

We request that you lock the garage at night.

Although these look just like the usual forms for those verbs, they’re actually in mandative subjunctive mood. (BTW, the everyday mood we use most of the time, for statement of plain fact, is called indicative.)

And some examples with be:

Andrew suggested that I be notified of the travel delay.

Donald urges that you be ready for the hike.

Angela insists that they be kept in the loop.

What my UK colleague and I discovered during our interview is that, whereas speakers of American English tend to use the mandative subjunctive exactly as I’ve described, speakers of British English generally don’t. Instead, they tend to say: 

Last week Carol insisted that Pat should go to the movies with her.

Or, even more bizzarely:

Last week Carol insisted that Pat went to the movies with her.

The variation with should is OK to me, but the one with went just sounds so wrong!

Another interesting thing in the interview was that a sample sentence with be that my colleague showed me looked strange when I read it silently on the printed page, but when I read it aloud, it sounded fine. So if any of the above examples look odd, try reading them out loud!

Be on the lookout, but even more so on the listen out 😊 for these verb forms. Do these examples sound natural to you? If not, what do you usually tend to say? Feel free to comment below–let’s get a discussion going!

And I’ll be back next time with the other variety of subjunctive, the irrealis, which is used for talking about hypothetical or contrary-to-fact situation

Pondering Punctuation: Index

Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part Five

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I couldn't resist using this one last time. Available at boredwalktshirts.com!

At long last, we’ve come to the final installment of our series on the correct use of the comma! If you missed any portions or would like to review, please see the list at the end of the post.

I have to admit that I’m suffering from a bit of comma burnout—and I’m sure you all are too! So let’s just dig in and get this done.

With Parenthetical and Descriptive Phrases

When your sentence contains a phrase that adds an explanation or comment, and you want to create the effect of just a slight pause, use commas to surround the phrase:

Using commas correctly can be, to say the least, confusing at times.

The use of periods, on the other hand, is usually straightforward.

If you remember back to our last installment, we talked a bit about essential and extra information. The distinction is important in comma usage because if a descriptive phrase is essential to identifying the person or thing it’s modifying, no commas are used:

The book with the distinctive blue cover is my favorite grammar reference.

Here the phrase with the distinctive blue cover is essential; if we removed it, a reader wouldn’t be able to tell which book we’re talking about: The book is my favorite grammar reference. Note also that there are no commas around the essential phrase.

But have a look at this sentence:

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, with its distinctive cover, is my favorite grammar reference.

Here, since we have the name of the book, the phrase with its distinctive cover is extra information. If we removed it, a reader would still know which book we’re talking about:  The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is my favorite grammar reference. And note that we do need commas around the extra phrase. As we saw last time, you could think of the commas as miniature parentheses.  

(And by the way, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is a real book, and it is indeed one of my favorite grammar references. I highly recommend it! Note that I’m not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.)

This rule—no commas for essential phrases, commas for extra phrases—also applies if the phrase starts with such as or including:

It’s best to avoid unusual words, such as multitudinous and deracinate, when writing for a general audience. 

Here the phrase such as multitudinous and deracinate is extra information, since we’ve already established that we’re talking about unusual words. The extra phrase merely supplies some examples, and it’s surrounded by commas. But if the sentence was written this way:

It’s best to avoid words such as multitudinous and deracinate when writing for a general audience.

In this sentence the phrase such as multitudinous and deracinate is essential for identifying what kind of words are to be avoided. If we removed the phrase—again, a good test to determine whether a phrase is essential or extra—we’d be left with the nonsensical It’s best to avoid words when writing for a general audience. Hmm, how would you do that? 😊 

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With Dependent Clauses

Hooray, we’ve arrived at our final two comma rules! We have just one last grammar term to define quickly. In a previous post about colons and semicolons, we encountered the term “independent clause,” which means a clause that can stand on its own as a sentence. So if an independent clause can stand on its own, what do you think a dependent clause would be? Yup, it’s one that, even though it has a subject and a verb, can’t stand on its own as a sentence. For example:

*When I finish editing the book

*If there’s nothing that needs to be changed

These clauses clearly can’t stand on their own—they need another clause to round out the story. (The asterisk at the start means that they’re ungrammatical sentences.) Plumped out and paired up with a main clause, they might look like this:

When I finish editing the book, I’ll notify the author.

If there’s nothing that needs to be changed, the book will be published late this year.

And this shows the first dependent clause rule in action: when the dependent clause comes before the main clause, put a comma at the end of the dependent clause.

But what happens if we swap the order of the clauses?

I’ll notify the author when I finish editing the book.

The book will be published late this year if there’s nothing that needs to be changed.

Now the main clause is first and the dependent second, and there’s no comma. Most of the time this will hold true. There are only a few cases in which a comma might be necessary after the main clause:

  1. If there’s a significant contrast, indicated by the dependent clause starting with though, although, even though, or whereas;
  2. If the dependent clause starts with because and there is possibility of ambiguity (usually when the main clause contains a negative verb); or
  3. If the dependent clause is clearly parenthetical and has no effect on the overall meaning of the sentence.

Examples of these:

  1. The novel on the whole was good, although the end was a bit disappointing.
  2. Scott didn’t read the book, because his friends hadn’t liked it.
  3. I’ll finish up this post now, if you don’t mind.

If you’d like to read in more detail about these exceptional cases, check out this very thorough blog post. It’s written on a grammar nerd level of detail and so is not an easy read, but it does contain many good examples helpful for understanding these situations.

I hope that this series has cleared up at least some of the confusion you might have about the proper uses of the comma. But more importantly, I hope that you’ve come to realize that using commas—and in fact, all punctuation—is more of an art than a science. That’s why it’s so important to look for the rules in action when you read and to make a conscious effort to use them in your own writing. Remember that you can always send me your questions; I’m more than happy to help! Either post them below, or email to steph@tightprose.com.

And now, I promised you a recap of all the comma articles with links—here you go!

Part one: Commas in pairs; joining independent clauses; the serial, or “Oxford,” comma.

Part two: Commas with “not” phrases; with “the more…” “the less…” type phrases; with questions inside a sentence; with quotations; with parentheses.

Part three: Commas with introductory elements: words, short phrases, adverbial phrases, and participial phrases.

Part four: Commas with relative clauses and appositives—where the distinction between essential or extra information is particularly important.

Part five—this post: Commas with parenthetical and descriptive phrases, and with dependent clauses.

Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part Four

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One of the surprising side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increased demand for cybersecurity experts. It seems every time you turn on the TV lately, there are plenty of commercials offering programs to teach jobseekers these skills. Since we’re all online so much now—for work, shopping, and just staying in touch with each other—there’s increased risk of our personal data being stolen.

Have you ever stopped to think about what goes into that personal data? Just what information is essential to identify you as an individual? How about these: your full name; your birthday; credit card numbers; your Social Security number, for you Americans out there—the list is extensive, and even depends on the part of the word you live in.

But then there are other facts about you that, while interesting and maybe even important, are true of many people: that you live in a particular town or city; that you play a particular sport; that you have a dog or cat for a pet, and so on. This type of information doesn’t single you out; you could call it extra information.

In today’s installment of our continuing series on comma usage, let’s take a look at how these types of information—essential and extra—are handled in sentences.

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With relative clauses:

A relative clause is a phrase within a sentence that modifies a noun and starts with that, which, or who/whom/whose. Sometimes a relative clause contains information essential to identifying a specific person or thing, but other times it contains extra information. For example:

When we visited the mother dog and her litter, we decided to take the puppy who had a white spot on her chest.

Our puppy, who has a white spot on her chest, loves to play fetch.

Notice how in the first example, the relative clause who had a white spot on her chest is essential for identifying which puppy we selected. If you got rid of that clause, the remaining sentence wouldn’t make any sense: *When we visited the dog and her litter, we decided to take the puppy. This leaves the reader wondering which puppy we picked. (BTW, the asterisk before the sentence means that it’s ungrammatical.)

In the second sentence, however, since we don’t have to single out a particular puppy, you could leave out the relative clause who has a white spot on her chest and the sentence would still make sense: Our puppy loves to play fetch. In this case, the clause who has a white spot on her chest is extra information.

Traditionally, grammarians have called the essential type “restrictive” and the extra type “non-restrictive.” But I’ve never found those terms helpful, so I’m going to stick with these concepts of essential and extra information throughout this post.

Now, on to the role of the comma. Look again at the essential example:

When we visited the mother dog and her litter, we decided to take the puppy who had a white spot on her chest.

Note that there is no comma before who. But in the extra example:

Our puppy, who has a white spot on her chest, loves to play fetch.

There are commas around the clause who has a white spot on her chest. So the rule is: if the relative clause contains essential information, it does not take commas; but if the relative clause contains extra information, it does take commas.

Another way to look at it is that the commas are functioning almost like parentheses—they are signposts that mean “We don’t need this information to identify someone or something.”

One more example:

Every book that Chuck owns is about sports.

The book The Boys of Summer, which Chuck owns, details the history of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers.

If we remove the essential relative clause that Chuck owns from the first sentence, we’d be left with Every book is about sports. And of course that’s not true. Notice that there are no commas, either.

But we can remove the extra relative clause—everything between the commas—from the second and it’s still a true statement: The book The Boys of Summer details the history of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers. The fact that Chuck has a copy of this book is extra information.

You’ve no doubt noticed that in the first sentence the word that starts off the relative clause, but in the second it’s which. You’ll come across some traditional grammars that prescribe using that only with essential clauses, and which only with extra clauses. But this is not actually a hard and fast rule. Native speakers of English tend to automatically use that only with essential clauses, but you can use which with either type. Just go with whichever sounds better to your ear, and then check whether you need to have commas (extra) or not (essential). Chances are that if you naturally used that, it will be an essential clause, which does not need the commas.

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With appositives:

Whew! I know that was a lot to absorb. But fortunately this next rule works just like the one for relative clauses.  

First of all, what’s an appositive? It’s a word or phrase which usually follows directly after a noun and provides more information about that noun—for example:

Jason’s wife, Helga, is a German citizen.

Here Helga is an appositive to—more information about—Jason’s wife.

Do you see where we’re going with this? If an appositive provides more information about a noun, sometimes that information is going to be—you guessed it—essential, and other times it’s going to be extra. And the comma rules are exactly the same as with relative clauses: no commas with essential information; commas (again, think parentheses) with extra information.

So why did we use commas in that example? Jason has only one wife, so we don’t need her name to single her out. It’s extra information. But how about this one:

Jenn’s brother Nate came to visit her. 

No commas here—which means that Jenn has more than one brother; Nate is the one who came to visit, and his name is essential in order to pinpoint him. But what if the sentence had been written this way:

Jenn’s brother, Nate, came to visit her. 

At first glance this seems to be the exact same sentence. But check out the commas—this version means that Jenn has only one brother, so his name is extra information.

One more set of examples, this one not so tricky:

Many theater lovers consider Shakespeare’s play Hamlet the greatest drama of all time.

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is not often performed.

In the first sentence, Hamlet is essential to identify which one of Shakespeare’s plays we’re talking about—so no commas. But in the second sentence, since Beethoven wrote only one opera, the name isn’t essential—it’s extra information.

By now your head is probably spinning—mine certainly was when I first started paying attention to this distinction. And you might even wonder why it matters. I have no answer for that, other than to say that it does: observing the rules and correctly applying (or not applying) the commas will distinguish you as a careful writer who pays attention to detail.

And some good news—this is the most subtle, most difficult application of all of the comma rules. You’ve seen the worst now, so our last installment on the comma will be a piece of cake! I’ll be back soon with those few remaining rules. Until then, as always, look for these principles at work “in the wild,” and practice using them in your own writing. And please feel free to leave any questions below!