Monday, November 2, 2009

Introductory clauses COMMA

Here's why introductory elements should usually be set off with a comma:

When I returned home and enrolled in college for the first time I really studied hard.

Question-- what was for the first time? Enrolling in Union College? Then:
When I returned home and enrolled in Union College for the first timeCOMMA I really studied hard.

But what if it's "for the first time I really studied hard"?
Then:
When I returned home and enrolled in Union CollegeCOMMA for the first time I really studied hard.

I know. No matter what, it's not a great sentence. But point is-- it's pretty much incomprehensible without the introductory element distinguished by a closing comma.

The reader needs to know what goes with what. Need that comma!
(Yes, yes, it's paper-grading time again. I need sympathy. And whiskey.)
Alicia

10 comments:

Murphy said...

Whiskey? That's hardcore. Those papers must be driving you nuts.:D
Murphy

JohnO said...

There's some nuance here, methinks. Certainly the longer the clause, the more you need the comma.

There's an old piece of advice, which I'll use to illustrate:

a) If the introductory clause has more than five words, that comma has to be there.

b) But if it's short you might skate by without it.

I think the pivots are rhythm and clarity. If it's unclear without one (as you point out), then it's a no-brainer that you include it.


And if there's a natural pause, you want it there. But there are times when another comma throws off the way you want it to read. But it took me a few years of baffing through text as an editor to develop an ear for that.

Edittorrent said...

I always use a comma with an intro element. Almost always. You'll usually be right, and you'll never be wrong. (Of course, fiction is more flexible-- but I'd still say-- do it right, and then decide whether it's better to do it wrong.)

Of course, this is another of those House Style issues-- all that ends up mattering is what the House Style Book requires.
Alicia

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I can't help with the whiskey, but the sympathy? I remember those paper-grading days from my MFA years.

You've got all the sympathy I can muster.

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

Ahh, there's nothing as annoying as the overuse, or the under-use, of the comma.

:,)

Leona said...

Wow. Have we ever driven you to whiskey? You have lots of sympathy from me, but if you get some whiskey, please share with us nonowrimos. I'm writing a fantasy for this one, so it's okay if I start hallucinating and making stuff up :D

BTW 2700 words yesterday!

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I'm with you. My default is to use a comma with every introductory clause, and then delete it if I decide it gets in the way - but that's rare. :)

Jami G.

Wes said...

Cool post.

Dang, grading papers got to be a drag. I put a maximium page number on them. Undergrads had to do a literature review, then propose a research topic. Grad students had to do a complete thesis proposal. Brutal grading.

You could always do the gravity test. Throw the papers down a stairway. The ones that go the farthest give an A, the next farthest, a B; and so on.

Maureen McGowan said...

OMG You guys have the best FTC disclosure statement ever.

Leona said...

Don't they though? I love it. Hey, can I post it on my blog in the name of all editors and agents out there? lol