Adding a comma between the subject and predicate, is inadvisable

In his classic short book on punctuation, Mind the Stop, G.V. Carey says of the comma: ‘The writer who handles this puny little stop correctly and sensibly can probably punctuate as well as need be.’ My work as a copy-editor generally bears this out, but such proficiency is unusual. It’s a tricky mark to master.

One of the first things we learn implicitly about commas is that they’re not normally used between a subject and predicate: Jane cycles, not *Jane, cycles. They may, of course, be needed in pair form if the subject is followed by an appositive phrase (Jane, a city girl, cycles) or a non-restrictive clause (Jane, who is a city girl, cycles).

Jane, cycles is perhaps a misleading example in that the subject is short and simple, and such a mistake would be unlikely from a native-English speaker with basic education. Lengthen or complicate the subject, though, and commas begin to materialise.

In his Johnson column in the 23 Sept. Economist (‘Comma chameleon’, or ‘The power of the comma’ in the online edition), Lane Greene writes:

No wonder novice writers are often at a loss, and put commas where they do not belong. The title of the punctuation-promoting bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” comes from a joke about a poorly punctuated wildlife guide describing the diet of panda bears. But putting a comma between a verb and its direct object is not a common mistake. A much more frequent foible in the writing of inexperienced students, is the habit of putting a comma between a long subject and a predicate (as here).

It isn’t just inexperienced students who do this, as we’ll see. The habit was once common, and part of standard English, but it has since fallen from favour. Garner’s Modern English Usage says it has been ‘out of fashion since the early 20th century’ and is now considered incorrect.

Others concur. Quirk and Greenbaum’s University Grammar of English, for example, says categorically that a comma ‘cannot separate subject from predicate’. Even the descriptive-leaning Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage rejects the practice, saying it is ‘no longer cricket’. Separating the subject and predicate with punctuation, it finds,

is an old convention that has fallen into disuse and disfavor. It was common in the 18th century: [‘What Methods they will take, is not for me to prescribe’ —Jonathan Swift, 1712; ‘The first thing to be studied here, is grammatical propriety’ —Lindley Murray, 1795]. This comma is now universally frowned on and tends to be found only as a vice of comic-strip writers, advertisers, and others who are not on their guard. You should avoid the practice.

The Fowlers devote several pages of The King’s English to analysing examples from newspapers and literature, sometimes unfairly: they denounce examples from earlier times, when the usage was fine. They call it ‘illogical’ and ‘illegitimate’, but they acknowledge contexts where its use is ‘comforting’ because of the length of the subject.

One such example occurs in the leader of the same Economist issue I quoted above:

Even as China’s achievements inspire awe, there is growing concern that the world will be dominated by an economy that does not play fair. Businesses feel threatened. Governments that have seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump, worry about the effects of job losses and shrinking technological leadership.

The subject here is followed by a restrictive clause (that have seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump) before it reaches the verb, worry. I suppose the comma was added to prevent a miscue in readers’ minds, but I don’t think it’s warranted. Worry points to a plural subject, and Brexit and the election of Mr Trump are not capable of worrying, so the chances of even momentary misreading seem negligible. In any case it’s not hard to follow the main point: Governments worry about the effects of job losses, etc.

Comma use varies greatly between people and contexts, and trends change over time. On Macmillan Dictionary Blog in 2012, I wrote:

From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression.

That a comma considered unacceptable by prescriptive and descriptive authorities alike can appear in the leader of the Economist, an uncommonly well-edited publication, shows the extent of this leeway. Personally I don’t much mind the Economist‘s comma, though given the choice I would have removed it. What about you?

On a broader point, Greene is consistently good on language, and his article is worth reading in full. (Plus, I have an amusing cameo on the subject of serial commas.) We disagree on comma splices – they don’t make me ‘furious’ – but I’ll leave that for another time.

Update:

Rereading Pincher Martin by William Golding, I noticed the following example:

A segment of storm dropped out like a dead leaf and there was a gap that joined sea and sky through the horizon. Now the lightning found reptiles floating and flying motionlessly and a tendril ran to each. The reptiles resisted, changing shape a little, then they too, dropped out and were gone.

The comma before dropped is eccentric. Then again, the style of the entire book is. (The ‘reptiles’ are seagulls.) Unlike the Economist example quoted above, though, Golding’s anomalous comma was added not for clarity but apparently for prosodic effect.

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30 Responses to Adding a comma between the subject and predicate, is inadvisable

  1. Harry Lake says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say! (Certainly on this point.)
    I note an increasing tendency to use too many commas in constructions like ‘a new, Russian, bomber’. Sometimes with only one comma, after ‘new’ – not much better. Of course there will be cases where (or in which, for purists perhaps) the two commas are needed. I’d like your comments on this though I appreciate it’s really, perhaps, another question.

    Perhaps I may add that I’ve been trying to send comments from some months. Only tonight have I realized that it is some problem with the Vivaldi browser that is preventing me. I’m writing this in ‘old’ or ‘real’ Opera.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Wholehearted agreement on even one debatable aspect of comma use is reason for cheer!

      Commas in coordinate modifiers, such as a series of adjectives, are worth a post of their own, but yes, I too see the widespread practice you mention. Whether it’s increasing is another question. In your example, I think both commas should be omitted, because new modifies the whole phrase Russian bomber. Where that’s not the case [a small(,) dark object], there’s often more flexibility.

      I’m sorry to hear that about Vivaldi, and I don’t know why that’s the case; I’ve never used the browser.

  2. John Cowan says:

    I, see what you did there.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I liked Greene’s self-demonstrating example (‘A much more frequent foible in the writing of inexperienced students, is the habit of putting a comma…’). But I came worryingly close to titling this post ‘Commas you are, as you were, as I want you to be’.

  3. My pet peeve is missing the final comma before and in a list of items: e.g. punctuation such as periods, commas, semicolons and colons; which should be written: punctuation such as periods, commas, semicolons, and colons.

    (Posted from Vivaldi browser to test a report on the Vivaldi forums).

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an unfortunate peeve, since there’s nothing grammatically wrong with omitting the serial comma. It’s certainly not a case of ‘should be written’. There are even times when using this comma can introduce ambiguity. The best approach, I find, is to be flexible about it (but consistent in a given text, if for public consumption).

      Thanks for testing Vivaldi.

    • Harry Lake says:

      Thanks for your comment on Vivaldi. I am in fact typing this in Vivaldi. Why it should work now is a mystery (unless of course action has been taken by the developers following my message there). However, I now have a black bar at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Loading…’. This lasts one second and is followed by a pause of three seconds before returning. Apologies for this off-topic topic.

  4. flissw says:

    Thanks for confirming my instinct – as a copyeditor/proofreader sometimes I begin to doubt myself on the most basic things. Do you have an opinion on the use of semicolons instead of commas in lists?

  5. @flissw I generally use semicolons to separate groups in a list: e.g. On the menu today: bacon and eggs, mushrooms, and tomatoes; steak and kidney pie, chips, and peas; roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; and Toad in the hole, mushy peas, and mashed potatoes.

  6. bevrowe says:

    I read this post immediately after editing the following sentence in a text:
    “… who published his discovery of two industrial-sized chimneys used by Phidias for melting bronze in The Oxford Journal of Archaeology in 2002.”
    It wasn’t appropriate to rewrite the sentence so I felt I had to put a comma after ‘in’. Not between subject and predicate but almost as ‘incorrect’.

    • Harry Lake says:

      Assuming you meant to say ‘before’, not ‘after’, I see nothing really wrong with your inserted comma. Doesn’t it merely act to signal an extra piece of information? However, I’d be interested to hear why it wasn’t appropriate to rewrite the sentence by moving ‘in 2002’ to before ‘published’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I think a comma after bronze is entirely justifiable, lest a tired mind wonder for a moment what Phidias was doing melting bronze in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. I would consider it a rhetorical or rhythmic comma, signalling a necessary pause.

      In my own day’s editing, I saw and duly removed an example of the comma discussed in the post. Now I have somewhere handy to refer people if necessary. :-)

  7. banivani says:

    Very interesting. I have to admit I might stick a comma in like that when writing English. I wouldn’t in Swedish though (my other native language). Generally Swedish punctuation feels “simpler” and more to the point, whereas when writing in English I get a feeling sometimes that I shouldn’t have a sentence this long and just have to stick, a comma, in somewhere. ;) Perhaps I should just try to punctuate with my Swedish brain screwed on.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting comparison! There’s a line I like by Gertrude Stein, from her essay On Punctuation: ‘A comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma.’ Not every sentence resolves so readily without punctuation, though. You might also appreciate the last paragraph in my Macmillan Dictionary article, on the need (or not) to stick a comma in somewhere.

  8. Duncan says:

    It’s something that I look out for in my own writing and might change if I find myself doing it, but it’s no biggie, as they say. In that example though, I might change it to “Governments that have seen Brexit, and the election of Mr Trump, worry …” Or is that worse, being two commas too many?

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a better solution than the one they chose, I think. The only real disadvantage is that putting the election of Trump inside a pair of commas could suggest that it’s less important in this context than Brexit.

  9. Theophylact says:

    From Sunday’s New York Times:

    He too blames the conservatives and the right-wing tabloids that support them for much of the erosion. “The readiness of the political right in particular to lie and peddle obvious untruths, to place their party politics and party unity over and above the national interest, has been going on for a long time,” he said. “The harrumphing nationalism masks a country ill at ease with itself.”

    Not about Trump, but Brexit. I cheated by lowering the case on “Conservative”

    • Stan Carey says:

      The comma after national interest – if that’s what you’re drawing attention to – is fine. Indeed, it seems mandatory, being one of a pair setting off the phrase that begins: ‘to place their party politics’.

  10. I understand the comma inserted by the Economist, as well the objections to it. How would I have edited the passage?

    Assuming I had the right to rearrange the words:

    Having seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump, governments worry about the effects . . .

    If not:

    Governments, that have seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump, worry about the effects . . .

    Looking forward to your take on my take. Your column is a great education for me.

    [No editing tools, or I would have indented or italicized the edited passages.]

    • Stan Carey says:

      Your first rewrite is grammatically fine but loses the original’s parallelism with the previous line (Businesses do X. Governments do Y.), which lends both clarity of comprehension and rhetorical effect. Adapting your suggestion gives us:

      Governments, having seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump, worry about the effects of job losses…

      This would be an acceptable minimal-interference workaround.

      Your second rewrite doesn’t work so well because of the comma before that, as Harry says. It’s an unusual construction likely to give readers pause. I’ve written about similar cases a few times (most recently in this post) and have collected many examples since, so I’ll be returning to it sooner or later.

      Thanks for the kind note. To put italics or block quotes in comments, you can use HTML: [i] [/i] and [blockquote] [/blockquote], except with angle brackets instead of square ones.

  11. Harry Lake says:

    In my version of British English, learnt essentially between 1955 and 1965, it is not usually admissible to use ‘that’ after a comma like this. My own version would simply omit both commas. With commas, regardless of whether you use ‘that’ or ‘which’, the meaning is basically ‘all governments’, unless of course you believe there are some governments that have not seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump. (And I am saddened by the widespread use of ‘Brexit’ to refer to the referendum rather than the event itself, which has yet to take place.) Time for me to shut up.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes: omitting both commas is the most straightforward fix.

      • Thanks, Mr. Lake. I dislike the comma before “that” as well, and only proposed it assuming I did not have the right to edit words – though I would have lobbied strenuously to be given that right in this case.

        Brexit appears to be taking on dimensions far beyond its origins, much like The Watergate Break-in was shortened as an expression to Watergate, but expanded in meaning to stand for a wide variety of activities by many people that spanned many years.

  12. Brian C. says:

    The idea that certain uses of the comma are “illogical” is itself illogical, because it presupposes that there is (or should be) a “logic” of comma usage. There is no logic of comma usage, and there shouldn’t be. The only rule that has ever really seemed valid to me is that you should use commas to mark the kind of pauses that are natural to human speech.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Human speech is not a uniform phenomenon, though: there’s huge variation in people’s prosody. For example, when saying a line like ‘I’ve seen enough, to be honest’, many people would not pause after enough. Many others would. But a grammatical rule or convention – not a rhythmic, rhetorical, or stylistic one – requires the comma and prevents ambiguity. There is a logic to this.

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