by Shauna Bolton
You wanted help figuring out commas, and here it is.
Rule 3— Introductory Elements
- Set off introductory elements with a comma.
Introductory elements include adverbs, prepositional phrases, adverb clauses, and participial phrases.
Example 1: Adverb(s)
Quickly and quietly, the students left the burning school.
The comma shows that the sentence, the independent clause, begins after the adverbs. It tells readers that the phrase “quickly and quietly” is not part of the sentence’s main point. The main point is that students left a burning school. The introductory adverb element shows how the students left.
- Adverbs are MOVEABLE. They can appear before, inside, or after the sentence.
- Example 1a: The students, quickly and quietly, left the burning school. Notice that the adverbs are set off by commas on both sides.
- Example 1b: The students left the burning school quickly and quietly. Notice that no commas are needed.
EXAMPLE 2: Prepositional Phrase
On the trail, the hikers encountered a herd of wild mountain sheep.
Once again, the comma shows that the sentence, the independent clause, begins after the prepositional phrase. The main point here is that hikers saw mountain sheep. The introductory prepositional phrase works like an adverb, telling where the hikers were when they saw the sheep.
- In writing, prepositional phrases can only be introductory elements if they perform an adverb function, telling when, where, why, how many, how long, how much, etc.
Prepositional phrases that perform the adjective function of describing nouns or pronouns must come after the noun or pronoun. They can never be introductory elements.
- Example 2a: Prepositional Phrase (Adjective function)
The largest sheep with the biggest horns are males.
“With the biggest horns” describes the noun and subject “sheep.” Writing the sentence as “With the biggest horns, the largest sheep are males” sounds awkward to the ear. It is incorrect.
- Like adverbs, prepositional phrases are also moveable. But moving prepositional phrases can change their meaning.
- Example 2b: On the trail, the hikers encountered a herd of wild mountain sheep.
This sentence implies that both the hikers and the sheep are on the trail. Using a prepositional phrase to begin a sentence suggests that the prepositional phrase applies to the entire sentence.
- Example 2c: The hikers on the trail encountered wild mountain sheep.
In this example, the prepositional phrase has an adjective function.
“On the trail” tells us which hikers saw and which did not. The hikers on the trail encountered sheep. The hikers off the trail did not. If a prepositional phrase tells us which one, it works like an adjective.
As an adjective, this prepositional phrase tells us only about the hikers. We don’t know where the sheep are. We only know which hikers encountered sheep and where they were when it happened.
The prepositional phrase also appears where we would expect to see an adjective prepositional phrase – after “hikers,” the noun it describes.
- Example 2d: The hikers encountered wild mountain sheep on the trail.
In this example, putting the prepositional phrase at the end tells us where the hikers and the sheep were when the encounter took place. adverb function.
Mechanics don’t just work on cars.
Part 3 will include explanations for those of you who want to understand both what you’re doing and how it works.
If you don’t care about the nuts and bolts, just learn the comma rule. Skip the rest. And don’t draft any contracts….
EXAMPLE 3: DEPENDENT CLAUSES
- The coordinating conjunctions – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so – connect sentences of equal weight. This means that both sentences are equally important to the writer. The coordinating conjunction tells us to read them that way.
- Example 3a: The Seahawks won, and the Broncos lost.
In this sentence, the coordinating conjunction “and” tells us the Broncos’ loss is just as important as the Seahawks’ win.
- Dependent clauses are sentences (independent clauses) that begin with a subordinating conjunction, words like after, until, because, when, before, if, although, etc.
The word “subordinate” means to “order,” or place, something/someone under (the prefix sub- means “under”) something/someone else. If you have a boss, you are a subordinate, and you work under his/her direction.
In the same way, subordinating conjunctions make one independent clause less important than the other.
- Example 3b: Although the Broncos lost, the Seahawks won.
This example is a variation on Example 3a. When “although” is placed before the independent clause “the Broncos lost,” it subordinates that sentence, meaning it makes that sentence less important.
What that means is this: The author clearly wanted both teams to win. That didn’t happen, but the Broncos’ loss is less important to the author than the Seahawks’ win.
- If the dependent clause starts the sentence, a comma follows to separate it from the independent clause.
- Example 3c: When they finished eating the children cleared the table.
Without the comma, cannibals are at the table. The subject of the independent clause, “the children” becomes the object of the dependent clause’s verb, “eating.” A comma prevents this.
When they finished eating, the children cleared the table.
The cannibals have vanished; all that remains are helpful children.
- Like adverbs, dependent clauses are moveable. They can come before, inside, or after the independent clause.
- Example 3d: After the concert ended, traffic jams kept us in the parking lot for an hour.
First, notice how the sentence would read without the comma.
After the concert ended traffic jams… If only it could.
- Example 3e: Traffic jams after the concert ended kept us in the parking lot for an hour.
- Example 3f: Traffic jams kept us in the parking lot for an hour after the concert ended.
Each of these variations tells us when the traffic jams happened.When is an adverb function.
- EXAMPLE 4: PARTICIPIAL PHRASES
- Participles are past tense or progressive verbs used as adjectives.
- Past tense verbs usually end in -ED.
- Progressive verbs end in -ING.
HOW TO TURN VERBS INTO PARTICIPLES:
- The toast burned. (past tense verb ending in -ed.)
Burned toast stinks. (past tense verb describes noun “toast.”
- The bat went flying (past progressive verb ending in -ing.)
The flying bat hit me. (progressive verb describes the noun “bat.”)
- Like prepositional phrases, participial phrases have both adjective and adverb functions. These phrases are adjectives if they describe nouns or pronouns or adverbs if they tell us when, where, why, how many, how long, how much, etc.
- When a participial phrase begins a sentence, insert a comma after the participial phrase. Participial phrases are also moveable. These examples are for past-tense participles.
- Example 4a: Burned beyond recognition, the body was unidentifiable.
- Example 4b: The body, burned beyond recognition, was unidentifiable.
- Example 4c: The body was unidentifiable, burned beyond recognition.
In each of these examples, the participial phrase “burned beyond recognition” describes the condition of the noun “body.” Adjective funtion.
- The rule for using commas with a participial phrase is EASY.
ALWAYS use commas to separate the participial phrase from the independent clause.
These examples are for “-ing” participles.
- Example 4d: Looking for a meal, the hawks floated on the rising air.
- Example 4e: The hawks, looking for a meal, floated on the rising air.
- Example 4f: The hawks floated on the rising air, looking for a meal.
In each of these examples, the participial phrase “looking for a meal” tells why the hawks floated. Adverb function.
- Participial phrases are one of the best ways to add detail to your sentences.
- They don’t require subjects or objects.
- You can make them as long or as short as you want or need.
- You can put them at the beginning, middle, or end.
- You can use two or more of them in the same sentence.
- They are great for reducing word count while retaining detail.
TO REMOVE VERBAL FAT, USE PARTICIPLE PHRASES.
The storm surge carried with it tons of sand that overwhelmed residents. The sand filled their cottages and buried their gardens. (21 words)
Tons of sand, carried with the storm surge, overwhelmed residents, filling their cottages, burying their gardens. (16 words = 24% cut)