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Commas with Subordinate Clauses—A Reader’s Question

July 30, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 1, 2014

A reader asked about commas with subordinate—also known as dependent—clauses. Because the topic covers several issues and because I was already working on one of the sub-topics for another article, I thought I’d answer the question in an article rather than in the comment section.

 ___________________

The Question

I’m having trouble knowing when to put a comma before a subordinate clause. For instance, why would there not be a comma before after in The police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving after crashing his car into a fence, yet there would be a comma before after in the sentence The police officer, after cashing his car into a fence, pleaded guilty to careless driving. Since you can move the “after . . .” part of the sentence around, why is it considered essential?

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The Answer

This is a great question because it delves into specifics of comma use with dependent clauses.

Because there are several types of dependent clauses—adjective, adverbial, and noun—this topic could get wordy if I tried to cover all of them. I’m going to focus on adverbial clauses since they’re usually the ones that cause the most problems and because the example in the reader’s question uses an adverbial clause.

A few details first—

An independent or main clause can stand alone as a sentence. It has a subject and a verb and conveys a complete thought.

The ball belongs to Alice.

The ball rolled down the hill.

The ball was red.

A dependent or subordinate clause can’t stand alone as a sentence. It does have a subject and a verb, but it doesn’t convey a complete thought. It depends on other sentence elements (typically an independent clause) to give it meaning.

Because the ball belonged to Alice

After the ball rolled down the hill

Since the ball was red

These are incomplete sentences  because they don’t convey a complete thought.

Because the ball belonged to Alice, what?

After the ball rolled down the hill, what happened?

Since the ball was red, what?

An adverbial clause often starts with a subordinating conjunction. A short list of subordinating conjunctions:

although

after

as

because

before

once

since

though

until

when

while

A subordinate clause that stands alone is a sentence fragment. Students are taught to not use sentence fragments, but fiction writers use them all the time for effect and rhythm.

“Why’d you steal the code?”

“Because I can.”

———-

Yeah, I planned on heading home. After I finished what I came to do.

While we can use dependent clauses as sentence fragments, most of the time we don’t. We usually pair them with at least one independent clause and create sentences.

The dependent clause can come before the independent one, after it, or it can come in the middle of it, interrupting the independent clause. Comma use is partly dependent upon where the dependent clause falls in relation to the independent clause.

Independent clauses often come first in our text, but putting dependent clauses first gives us variety in sentence construction.


Dependent Clause Before Independent Clause

When an adverbial dependent clause comes before the independent clause, we put a comma after the dependent clause (between the clauses). We don’t have to give any consideration to the topic of essential or nonessential—when the dependent clause comes before the independent, use a comma to separate them.

When I saw the destruction, I cried.

After the ball, Cinderella had to run home.

Although he turned down the job, the company did pay his travel expenses.

After crashing his car into a fence, the police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving.

Okay, that was the easy one. Let’s look at the next construction.


Dependent Clause After Independent Clause

When a dependent clause (we’re still talking adverbial clauses beginning with a subordinating conjunction) comes after the independent clause, most of the time there is no comma.

I cried when I saw the destruction.

Cinderella had to run home after the ball.

The police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving after crashing his car into a fence.

The company did pay Mark’s travel expenses, although he turned down the job.*

The exceptions

~ * There is a comma in the fourth example because the dependent clause begins with although, an adverb of concession. The adverbs of concession set up contrast clauses. Adverbs of concession include though, although, even though, and whereas. Use commas to introduce dependent clauses beginning with these words, even when the independent clause comes first.

She said it boldly, although I didn’t believe her.

My mother put on her dress, though it was still covered in mud.

John got out after six months, whereas Martin had to serve his full two-year sentence.

~  While, when it means as, is simply a subordinating conjunction. However, when while means whereas, it is being used as an adverb of concession and would be preceded by a comma after an independent clause. Think contrast.

The delivery guy waited in the pouring rain while [as] the little boy counted out his pennies.

The delivery guy waited at the door, while [whereas] his supervisor waited in the dry car.

~  The subordinating conjunction because, when it begins a dependent clause after an independent clause, usually gets no comma. Yet there are two instances when because is preceded by a comma in this sentence position.

First, when the independent clause contains a negative verb. We use commas in such sentences to eliminate possible confusion.

She didn’t run toward the house because she was afraid.

Without a comma, this sentence could be read two ways. But the reader has no way of knowing which reading is correct.

Either she didn’t run toward the house due to her fear (because she was afraid, which is likely what we want to say) or she didn’t run toward the house not because she was afraid, but for some other reason, a reason not mentioned in this sentence. If a reason other than fear was involved, go ahead and spell that out.

She didn’t run toward the house because she was afraid, but because she was eager to meet the ghost.

But if you want the first meaning, using because to mean due to her fear, adding a comma lets the reader know the reason for not running was because of her fear.

She didn’t run toward the house, because she was afraid.

The same reasoning is true for the next example.

Larry couldn’t grab all the marbles because they’d rolled down the hill.

Without a comma, this could mean Larry couldn’t grab all the marbles not because they’d rolled down the hill, but because of another reason altogether.

Larry couldn’t grab all the marbles because they’d rolled down the hill, but because the two little boys snatched them up.

But if you want the other meaning, Larry not being able to grab them because they rolled down the hill, use a comma before because to show this.

Larry couldn’t grab all the marbles, because they’d rolled down the hill.

The second exception for using a comma before because is when the cause in because could be paired with the wrong element, creating confusion for the reader.

Lauren suspected her brother-in-law robbed the bank because she had seen his mask in his car. X

Lauren suspected her brother-in-law robbed the bank, because she had seen his mask in his car.

Without a comma, this says that Lauren suspected that her brother-in-law robbed the bank on account of her seeing his mask, as if her seeing it led to his actions.

With the comma, the sentence says that she suspected him because she’d seen the mask.

Although I’ve marked the first sentence with an X, you could actually intend to say it with that meaning.


Use a comma to separate the dependent clause from the independent when it follows the independent one if the dependent clause is nonessential. Keep in mind, however, that many dependent clauses will be essential and will not require a comma.

Determining if the dependent clause is essential or nonessential can be tricky, but for nonessential in this construction, think parenthetical. If you could set the dependent clause apart from the independent clause by using a dash or parentheses—if it makes sense to do so and it is your intention to do so—you can also use a comma. When you use the comma (or dash or parentheses), you are declaring the dependent clause nonessential.

Showing that a clause is nonessential may be easier to do if you adjust the word choices.

Dexter went to jail after ten years on the run. (essential)

Compare to

Dexter finally went to jail, after ten years on the run. (nonessential)

Dexter finally went to jail—after ten years on the run.

The original sentence says that Dexter went to jail after being on the run for ten years. The next two say that Dexter finally went to jail—it happened to be after ten years on the run, but the thrust is that he finally went. The word choices and use or non-use of the comma give meaning to the sentences.

What’s important here is that the writer has a choice and the choice will direct the meaning of the sentence. This is not an instance when you must use a comma, as you do when naming a spouse—My husband, Zane, is not a cowboy. You choose comma or no comma, nonessential or essential, depending on what you want the sentence to say. (Keep in mind that we’re still looking at dependent clauses after independent ones.)

A couple more examples—

Lana gave up looking before she found her sister. (essential)

Lana gave up looking ten years ago, before she discovered her sister was actually her mother. (nonessential)

Lana gave up looking ten years ago (before she discovered her sister was actually her mother).

——–

Frances gave me her fork after the dog licked it. (essential)

Frances gave me her fork, after she let the dog lick it. (nonessential)

Frances gave me her fork—after she let the dog lick it.

Dependent Clause Within Independent Clause

A dependent clause can be nestled inside an independent clause. When a dependent clause is within the independent one, it’s an interrupter. An interrupter simply breaks the flow of a sentence, and there are many different kinds, not just dependent clauses. A single word, a phrase, or a clause can interrupt an independent clause, and interrupters include adverbs, participial phrases, absolute phrases, nonessential clauses, appositives, digressions, parentheticals, commentary, and asides. Any time these items interrupt a sentence—interrupt an independent clause—they are nonessential elements and need to be separated from the independent clause with punctuation.

We typically use commas both before and after most interrupters, yet you could use dashes or parentheses.

The man, breathing heavily, couldn’t call out for help.

Elton and Carl, recklessly and without warning, jumped off the roof.

Tina, surprisingly, didn’t faint.

Bettina, the strong one, did faint.

My best friend, Jilly, is coming for the weekend.

Tennessee and Georgia, because they couldn’t agree on water rights, went to war.

The police officer, after crashing his car into a fence, pleaded guilty to careless driving.

The information between the commas could be lifted out of the sentences and these sentences would still make sense in terms of both grammar and meaning. Would still be true. That is, taking out the dependent clauses would not negate the other parts of the sentence. The information between the commas is nonessential. The information may add details, but taking it out wouldn’t change the major thrust of the sentence or have readers trying to figure out what was going on. The sentences without the nonessential words, phrases, and clauses can stand on their own.

Note: Some sentences can be tricky. While it may seem obvious that the examples listed above require commas, do note that some sentences work both with commas and without; the difference is in their meanings. (This note has more to do with the differences between nonessential and essential than with dependent clauses and commas, yet since this topic is related, I’m including some details here.)

An example—

The pitcher, who had played ball as a boy, joined the senior circuit.

The pitcher who had played ball as a boy joined the senior circuit.

Both of these sentences are correct, but they have different meanings.

The first is talking about the pitcher, one who had been mentioned before or the only one around—maybe the one standing on the pitcher’s mound. The information about him playing ball as a boy does not identify the pitcher—it simply gives us more information about the man we have already identified as the pitcher.

In the second sentence, the information about one of the pitchers playing ball as a boy identifies which pitcher we’re talking about. It’s info essential to identify the pitcher.

For more details about nonessential and essential phrases and commas, see Restrictive or Not—When Do Clauses Need Commas and Treating Dependents and Subordinates Properly.

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 This article covered a lot of detail. Keep in mind that while we were looking at commas with dependent clauses, we were specifically looking at adverbial clauses beginning with subordinating conjunctions.

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53 Responses to “Commas with Subordinate Clauses—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Sam says:

    I found the post very helpful. There is, however, an example that is still giving me trouble. How can you justify making “after she let the dog lick it” nonessential. Does it not change the meaning if you take it out of the sentence?

    • Sam, that’s exactly the point. In this instance, making the dependent clause nonessential changes the meaning of the original sentence. So instead of the speaker simply reporting a fact, he’s offering his snide aside regarding Frances’s generosity with her fork. The dependent clause could as easily have been put in parentheses. We could even make it its own sentence—Frances gave me her fork. After she let the dog lick it.

      Now, if you wanted to keep the original meaning, you would not make the dependent clause nonessential. Just use the original sentence and be done with it.

      But you have choices and those choices have to do with what you’re trying to say as well as the way you want it said.

      What’s important in this case is that there are options—you can make the clause essential or nonessential, depending on what you’re trying to say. That is, a dependent clause after an independent one doesn’t have to be essential (though many—maybe most—are), and it doesn’t have to be nonessential. The writer gets to choose. And the choice affects meaning and perhaps tone or mood. The choice may also reveal character.

      If you’re analyzing these sentences after the fact, trying to determine whether the dependent clause is essential or nonessential, the words and the presence or absence of a comma should be your clues. If, however, you were writing these sentences, you would need to determine what you wanted to say and then construct the sentence in a way that conveyed your meaning. The point is, you could make your dependent clause either essential or nonessential; both choices are valid for dependent clauses that follow independent ones.

      The construction depends on what you want to say.

      ———–

      Am I getting at the issue you’re asking about?

  2. Sam says:

    I definitely think so. However, just to make sure, in your sentence, “The boy followed the puppy, as the kidnapper had intended him to do,” why is the comma necessary and not optional?
    –sorry for all the questions, this issue has been bothering me for awhile.

    • Sam, this one is nonessential. It’s a parenthetical element. A couple of variations that might make it easier to see–

      The boy followed the puppy, as I imagine I would have done in the same circumstances.

      The boy followed the puppy, as his mother predicted he would.

      The boy followed the puppy, as curious little boys are wont to do.

      All of these subordinate clauses could just as easily be set off with dashes or parentheses.

      As in all these sentences means in the (same) way, not while.

  3. SimonLee says:

    Thanks for this–I teach 8th grade Language Arts, and I always like to read posts like this to make sure I’m getting it right. The hardest thing about this is determining if the clause is subordinate or not–usually it is easy, but when you add in the idea that is can have a subject and predicate and not be a complete idea on its own (like the example above: “The company did pay Mark’s travel expenses, although he turned down the job”) The clause “He turned down the job” almost feels independent. This is one of the harder ones to teach.

    Anyway, I bookmarked this page as a reference!

    • Simon, a brush-up is always helpful—I use them myself. We want to be sure we’re teaching the right information.

      Maybe there’s a way to teach students to check all the words in a clause before they make their decisions. After all, he turned down the job is independent. It’s just that tricky although stuck in front of it that makes it dependent. And a single word (or a short phrase), as long as it’s a subordinating conjunction, is enough to make many clauses dependent.

      My hat is off to you for teaching students the specifics of grammar. I’m glad they’re getting a strong foundation. Here’s hoping the upcoming year is a great one for you and your students. May they learn easily, may it all click for them, and may they be eager for more.

      Thanks for dropping in.

  4. Judy says:

    The best explanation I’ve seen for dependent clauses. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m printing this off and posting it on my office wall.

  5. Lamia says:

    This was exactly the post (very specifically comma use/non use with dependent clauses) I was hunting for last year :)

    Months of trawling the net searching for someone who had covered the topic … I was starting to think the answer must be really obvious and I was dense for not getting it. My feeling now is that basic grammars explain the basics well and have good basic examples—but they don’t necessarily prepare you for the more realistic situations you find in everyday language—or examples involving nuance, for example.

    I managed to nut a lot of it out myself (learning the vocab, like essential/non essential clauses, and some of your earlier posts helped tremendously), but I’m really glad you wrote this post. It ties everything together—and helps me understand why sometimes I get an urge to use a comma and sometimes not. (It’s funny how you do some things automatically but then second guess yourself when you can’t explain why you did what you did …

    • Lamia, I’m sorry I didn’t have this around for you when you were searching for the info last year.

      I also find that some sources present only the basics. But writers are often looking for specifics and exceptions and more than just the common rules. I like knowing why the rules exist because knowing the rationale behind rules lets me know when and how I can break those rules. More information leads to more choices. Better choices.

  6. Sam says:

    How would you punctuate an adverbial clause within an adverbial clause? For instance, “Because (,) when I eat broccoli (,) I feel sick, I don’t eat broccoli.”

    I usually see “that”-clauses that contain adverbial conjunctions punctuated with one comma after the adverbial clause (“I know that if I eat broccoli, I’ll get sick.”), and I was wondering if the same rule applied for the previously mentioned situation.

    • Sam, I don’t know that there’s a particular rule for an adverbial clause within an adverbial clause, but let’s look at what you’ve got.

      It looks to me that the issue/question has to do with comma use with multiple subordinating conjunctions. We use multiple subordinating conjunctions in a handful of situations, and we don’t usually use a comma between them. The resulting sentences may not be the best way to word something, but they are common and acceptable. (Such sentences can always be reworded.) A few examples—

      Because while I wanted a donut, I didn’t want the calories.
      Because until I found the murderer, I had no hope for the future.
      Because once it’s done, it can’t be undone.
      Although until the snafu was sorted out, she had no money.
      Now that whenever Max goes to Beijing he gets sick, he tries to combine trips and go only half a dozen times a year.
      Because when I eat broccoli I feel sick, I don’t eat broccoli.

      Again, rewording might create a clearer sentence for each of these, but these sentences do work.

      Does that get at what you were wondering about?

  7. Harry says:

    This is a really good guide to dependent clauses. Better than mine. Going to update my own guide to humble little comma mark to get the finer points across more effectively.

  8. Lina says:

    Is a comma needed in this sentence?
    Rico was not only confused, but also excited.
    Thank you for your response.

    • See David’s comment below plus my response for a change to this answer. (Beth, 11/25/15)

      Lina, yes, use a comma. This is an example of contrast, and we usually introduce that contrast with a comma.

      If I can offer a suggestion . . . I suggest omitting also. Since you’ve said not only, it’s not necessary to add also.

      Rico was not only confused, but excited.

      ———

      Just as a note, but isn’t always preceded by a comma.

      She ate one cookie but not the other.

      • David says:

        I thought Lina’s example would not take a comma because of the rule of correlative pairs?

        • David, you are indeed correct about not putting a comma between the two parts of correlative conjunctions. The only time such pairs should get a comma is if both parts contain independent clauses—Not only was Rico confused, but he was also excited.

          And for the correlative conjunction to be complete, it needs not only and but also.

          ————

          Thanks for the catch and the heads-up. I was paying attention to contrast rather than to rules about correlative conjunctions.

  9. Beth,

    I was about to pose the following question and then came across your response to Sam’s post about broccoli above. That correspondence, I believe, answers my first question, but I am still unclear about the proper punctuation for my example-sentence below. I am very grateful for any assistance regarding my sentence that you may be able to offer.

    1) Can there ever be two dependent clauses in a sentence–the second depending upon the first? 2) If so, what would be the proper punctuation throughout this following example from my résumé and why?

    “[I] Administered the Ohio Achievement Assessments to a student with learning differences at the request of the counselor and intervention specialist due to the boy’s educational progress with me[.]”

    By the way, this post about commas with subordinate clauses is great! It explains the subject matter very well! It seems to have helped many other people, too! I am currently in the process of writing a novel. It may be a long time from now, but when I complete it, I will keep you in mind as a fiction editor. Thank you.

    • I want to be sure we’re focusing on the same issue regarding your question. I’m guessing that you’re referring to the prepositional phrases (at the request of the counselor and due to the boy’s educational progress). So the question is about the multiple prepositional phrases, not dependent clauses?

      And since this is a resume, this is just one listing of one of your duties/achievements/tasks in one of your positions? Thus it actually begins with the words “Administered the Ohio Achievement”? (The I is implied?)

      I ask that last question because I can think of ways to rewrite—using all the phrases—that might be clearer. Yet that would mean this would no longer fit with other examples of your achievements/tasks. The format would be different.

      Also, what’s the most important element here? The fact that you administered the assessment or that it was requested due to your success with the student? That is, which accomplishment do you intend to highlight? That would be the one you’d want to put first.

      If I’m on board with you and we’re talking about the same issues, consider something such as the following, with one of the prepositional phrases set off by itself.

      — Due to the progress achieved through XYZ—and at the request of the counselor and intervention specialist—I administered the Ohio Achievement Assessments to a student with learning differences.

      If you need to keep the same format you already have—and the thrust is that you administered the assessments—you can still set off one of the prepositional phrases.

      — Administered the Ohio Achievement Assessments to a student with learning differences—at the request of the counselor and intervention specialist—due to the boy’s educational progress with me [or maybe as a result of the boy’s educational progress with me]

      Note: You may want to change the boy’s to the student’s.

      You could also try this version—

      — Administered (due to the student’s educational progress with me and at the request of the counselor and intervention specialist) the Ohio Achievement Assessments to a student with learning differences

      ———————-

      Let me know if we’re on the right track with any of these. If you can help me out with other particulars, I might be able to offer other options.

      But separating (or joining) the two prepositional phrases is probably the way to go.

      —————–

      For anyone reading this and wondering about due to as a preposition, it’s considered a complex preposition. Other examples of complex prepositions include along with, because of, prior to.

      • David says:

        Isn’t because of supposed to be the usage instead of due to? Administered as a result of, not the result of. At least that’s my understanding.

        • David, while some experts recommend against the use of due to as a compound preposition, others point out that it’s been used that way for many years (similar to the use of owing to).

          See Your Dictionary and Grammar Girl—Due to and Because for just two of the discussions about the subject.

          I even found this sentence (in the comment policy) in a blog that covered that very topic in an article—Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs . . .

          ————–

          While you might want to follow the rules concerning because and due to for some situations, it seems that usage is making room for allowances.

  10. Dinora says:

    Hello, Beth!

    Wonderful post! However, I’m trying to find out what happens with nested dependent clauses such as in these examples “He told her today that if she doesn’t do anything about it, he will fire him.” or “Maria told Jake that when she was younger, she used to attend dancing lessons.” I put a comma there after the dependent clauses. Am I right? Is there a style manual or grammar handbook dealing with these?

    As with a lot of other things, The New Yorker is specific in that it doesn’t separate introductory clauses with a comma if they follow a conjuction, except “since” or “although”, and if the meaning of such clauses is restrictive. I’m baffled. Have you ever heard anything like this?

    • Dinora says:

      Here is another example from The New Yorker:

      “But the writers seem to want to have it both ways: when they get something right, they brag about the show’s verisimilitude, but when they don’t they mock anyone who would mistake a comedy for facts.”

      I feel that there’s a comma missing after “don’t”.

  11. C Scofield says:

    What about commas after phrases with “in”? The wikipedia article about commas is itself inconsistent in its use of commas here. They write:
    “In the common character encoding systems Unicode and ASCII, character 44 (0x2C) corresponds to the comma symbol” and “In the Czech and Slovak languages, the diacritic in the characters ď, ť, and ľ resembles a superscript comma”.
    But they also write:
    “In many computer languages commas are used to separate arguments to a function” and “In the C programming language the comma symbol is an operator which evaluates its first argument”.

    Do I need a comma in a sentence such as “In previous studies, x was shown to be y” or not: “In previous studies x was shown to be y”?

    • C Scofield, most of those examples are actually correct. We typically only use the comma after a prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence if that prep. phrase contains five words or more (and to avoid confusion and when a series of prep. phrases starts a sentence). Some recommend the cutoff at four words.

      I would suggest a comma for this one—In the C programming language, the comma symbol . . .

      I’d probably also suggest a comma for your example, but only because the separation seems greater and seems to call for a comma. A comma would not be required, however. You could safely omit it.

  12. Phillip says:

    Thanks so much for this Beth! I had a question. I’m struggling with understanding how to use a comma in the sentence below. Do you mind me asking if you believe that the “their gowns and accessories…” phrase is correctly used as a dependent clause?

    The drawing depicts two well dressed kings, their gowns and accessories indicating their wealth and power.

  13. Jason Tan says:

    Hi Beth, just found your marvellous site, but after going through this post and the one on Finding Commas in All the Wrong Places, I have one question to ask of this sentence: Tootie drank the moonshine and passed out.

    In Finding Commas in All the Wrong Places, you said, “Don’t use commas to separate two actions of a subject”. But on this blog post, you said it is possible to use a comma, depending on what the writer want to stress.

    So, is this sentence correct if I want to stress that Tootie drank the moonshine? Sentence: Tootie drank the moonshine, and passed out.

  14. Jason Tan says:

    Hi Beth, thanks for your prompt response to my question a couple of days ago. Listen, I was reading the newspaper today and got stumped by a sentence. Referring to your explanation on handling “because” when it comes to a sentence with a negative verb, I am not sure whether the “until” used in the sentence below should be treated as similar to “because”.

    Which of these sentences is correct, please?

    1. I cannot confirm anything until I get some details. (no comma)
    2. I cannot confirm anything, until I get some details. (with comma)

    Thanks, Beth.

  15. Jason Tan says:

    Hi Beth, another sentence, which is similar to the earlier one. Thanks

    1. No, you cannot play video games until you’ve called your mother. (no comma)
    2. No, you cannot play video games, until you’ve called your mother. (comma)

    • Jason, because is peculiar since it can lead to phrases that can often be read two ways. Since doesn’t create the same problem (at least most of the time—there might be some exception that I’m overlooking). But for your sentences, no commas.

  16. Jason Tan says:

    Thanks again, Beth.

    I’ll let the alarm bells ring only when there’re negative verbs and “because” in the same sentences.

    You have a nice day ahead, Beth.

  17. Jason Tan says:

    Hi Beth, based on the rule for correlative pair, I believe the sentence below is wrong: there should not be any comma in this sentence.

    Mary says her brother may not be an eloquent man, but he is someone who speaks up for what he believes in.

    Am I right, Beth?

    • David says:

      Jason, I’m no expert, but a sentence such as yours usually takes a comma because you have a dependent clause preceding an independent clause. Correlative pairs (conjunctions) aren’t always comma free, especially when you are joining two clauses or for contrast.
      I’m sure Beth can give you a better rule-based answer than I.

    • Jason, I’m in agreement with David—this sentence requires a comma.

      The sentence isn’t actually an example of a correlative pair—keep in mind that both elements in a correlative pair are of equal weight. So we have two nouns or two objects or even two phrases or clauses.

      Consider these:

      Mary says her brother may not be an eloquent man but is a loyal one.

      Mary says her brother may not be an eloquent man but is one who speaks up for what he believes in.

      There’s no need to include he in your example.

      Another example:

      He was not happy but sad.

      The correlative pair of not/but allows us to omit words, so we don’t have to write—he was not happy, but he was sad. (A sentence which may not make too much sense.)

      As David pointed out, correlative pairs can be split by a comma—

      Not only was he an eloquent man, but he was one who spoke up for his beliefs.

      But correlative pairs do need to balance.

      Does that help?

  18. Jason Tan says:

    Beth, thanks! That clears things up for me.

    I came across a sentence yesterday, and I am not sure whether it should have a comma or not. It is not about correlative pairs. Hope you can help.

    Here goes: Her eyes darted from one face to another as if searching for assurance that we would keep our word about her real identity.

    I think the sentence is fine as it is. If we put a comma after “another”, it would turn “as if searching for assurance…” into a parenthetical phrase.

    Beth, could you enlighten me on this, please? Many thanks.

    • Jason, you are correct that “as if” sometimes follows a comma and sometimes doesn’t. If what follows is parenthetical, if it is nonessential, a comma is needed. For your example, both with a comma and without a comma are correct. Using a comma or not depends on what you’re saying and where the emphasis is.

      In some sentences, however, a comma would be a necessity. That is, sometimes there’s no option.

      An example where the comma is required:

      He spoke gently, as if to a frightened child.

      ————
      As a note, be careful about having eyes do what eyes can’t do. Sometimes we create unintended humor or reader double takes when eyes follow someone around a room or go darting around. Substitute gaze for eyes (or rewrite the action) when the action is beyond the ability of the human eye.

  19. Jason Tan says:

    Hi Beth, thanks a lot for your reply. Your explanation is very clear, and that note about “gaze” and “eyes” is a gem. It never crossed my mind that using “eyes” in this context is wrong. I have always been careful though with sentences such as this: “The event saw 10 participants dancing …” I read somewhere that an “event” does not have “eyes”; hence, they cannot “see”. In short, using “saw” is wrong.

  20. Jason Tan says:

    Hello Beth, concerning sentences with negative verbs and the word “because”, is this sentence correct with the comma after “rejoice”, please?

    If the house is built soon, Jim would not be there to rejoice, because he passed away two years ago.

    Thanks, Beth.

  21. Jamit Lee says:

    Beth, how does one go about with the commas when a sentence has a non-essential element and apostrophes as follows?

    1. The judge dismissed John’s lead counsel Peter Henry’s application for a stay in the execution of his judgement.

    The way I see it, there should be a comma before Peter and after Henry because John can only have one lead counsel-meaning Peter Henry is a non-essential item. But with the apostrophe in the picture, I am not sure where the commas should go.

    Should it be like this? The judge dismissed John’s lead counsel, Peter Henry’s, application for a stay in the execution of his judgement. Wouldn’t that make John’s lead counsel’s name “Peter Henry’s”?

    • Jamit, that’s a great question.

      For clarity and to avoid awkward constructions we often rewrite such sentences. Yet to answer your question before considering a rewrite, we typically do use a comma here. Yet only one and not two in this situation.

      We make the appositive possessive and skip the comma that usually follows it. So—

      The judge dismissed John’s lead counsel, Peter Henry’s application for a stay in the execution of his judgement.

      But such constructions can have readers rereading—after all, the judge didn’t dismiss John’s lead counsel. When the resulting sentence is confusing, rewrite. To quote CMOS on the subject (in an online question)—“When a possessive gets ugly, give it up.”

      Gregg’s also suggests rewriting.

      If the noun and its appositive are closely linked—my brother Bob’s—we can skip the first comma and that’s sometimes quite helpful.

      I’m guessing that some of the information in your sentence has already been conveyed to the reader and doesn’t need to be included here. Maybe some of the information doesn’t need to be mentioned at all—if they don’t already know it, will readers need the lead counsel’s name?

      Given this information, a few options:

      ~ The judge dismissed lead counsel Peter Henry’s application for a stay in the execution of his judgement. (Is “the execution of” necessary?)

      ~ The judge dismissed lead counsel Peter Henry’s application for a stay of judgement. (Would this work? Has enough info been included before this point for it to work?)

      ~ John’s lead counsel’s application for a stay of judgement was dismissed. X (This one, with two possessives back to back, can be confusing, and we often rewrite such sentences. We don’t always have to rewrite, but if you can head off confusion, try it.)

      ~ The lead counsel’s application for a stay of judgement was dismissed.

      ~ The judge dismissed the application for a stay of judgement.

      ~ The judge dismissed John’s application for a stay of judgement.

      Given what has come before this line in the text, do any of these work?

  22. Jamit Lee says:

    Beth, the sentences below would work for this particular story.

    The judge dismissed lead counsel Peter Henry’s application for a stay of judgement.

    and

    The judge dismissed the application for a stay of judgement.

    Thanks so much.

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  2. […] Also, while most dependent clauses introduced by a subordinating conjunction (as,  after, although, because, once, until, when, while, etc.) that follow an independent clause are essential, some are nonessential and require commas. (See Commas with Subordinate Clauses.) […]

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