PUNCTUATION AND STYLE IN WRITING (II)

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In the first post about punctuation and style we learned something about the use of commas in subject. Important issue when we have to do inverse translations (Spanish into English), reviews, academic texts, and so on.

Remember, on the basis that the normal word order in an independent clause is SUBJECT + PREDICATE, and talking specifically about the predicate:

  • Never put a single comma between a subject and its verb.
  • Use commas with verb modifiers displaced from their normal word order.

Take into account that, although noun modifiers have to stay near their head nouns, verb modifiers can wander about in the sentence. When they have a normal position do not require internal punctuation.

1.- Normal order for verb modifiers, NO PUNCTUATION needed:

SUBJECT            ADVERB            VERB      OBJECT

The judge          reluctantly           sentenced the thief.

SUBJECT     SPLIT VERB PHRASE (adverb following the first auwxliary verb)   OBJECT

The judge                                       had relunctantly sentenced                              the thief.

SUBJECT           VERB    OBJECT            ADVERB

The judge        sentenced  the thief          reluctantly.

SUBJECT           VERB   OBJECT            PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE

The judge       sentenced the thief           in a quick speech.

SUBJECT           VERB   OBJECT           INFINITIVE PHRASE

The judge        cleared the court           to hear the objection.

SUBJECT           VERB   OBJECT           ADVERBIAL CLAUSE

The judge       sentenced the thief        because he was guilty.

Notice that you normally don’t put verb modifiers between a verb and its object.

On the second hand, verb modifers which don’t follow the normal word order have to be grouped separately from the rest of the sentence with commas.

2.- Displaced verb modifiers, PUNCTUATION needed:

ADVERB,        SUBJECT      VERB          OBJECT

Reluctantly,    the judge sentenced        the thief.

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE,        SUBJECT      VERB         OBJECT

In a quick speech,                        the judge sentenced        the thief.

SUBJECT     ,PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE,        VERB        OBJECT

The judge           ,in a quick speech,                setenced the thief.

INFINITIVE PHRASE,      SUBJECT          VERB        OBJECT

To hear the objection,      the judge         cleared the court.

SUBJECT         ,INFINITIVE PHRASE,       VERB       OBJECT

The judge        ,to hear the objection,         cleared the court.

ADVERBIAL CLAUSE,        SUBJECT      VERB         OBJECT

Because he was guilty,     the judge     sentenced        the thief.

SUBJECT      ,ADVERBIAL CLAUSE,        VERB         OBJECT

The judge     ,because he was guilty,     sentenced        the thief.

The last two sentences are ambiguous: they both suggest that the judge is the person who was guilty. This situation occurs in many example sentences, and this is a problem in pronoun reference which can be easily corrected by reordering the pronoun and the noun:

Because the thief was guilty, the judge sentenced him.

The judge, because the thief was guilty, sentenced him.

But another problem can appear, like in the second sentence above: it is better not to separate the subject from its verb with a lengthy adverbial (example in bold), your readers may forget what the subject is when they reach the verb. It is not a grammar rule, in fact it is a grammatically correct sentence, it is a matter of common sense; always make things as easy as possible for your readers.

In a next post I’ll write about other internal punctuation in clauses.

For further information check A Writer’s Guide, Easy ground rules for successful written English, by Jane Walpole. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632.

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