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"?
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.)


Riley Murphy said...

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

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.

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.

Leigh Hutchens Burch 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 Gold said...


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