3 Cases of Confusion with Introductory Adverbial Phrases

By Mark Nichol

When an adverb or a phrase serving an adverbial function begins a sentence, the writer must take care not to introduce a simple punctuation mistake that erroneously associates that introductory word or phrase with the subject rather than the object. These three examples illustrate the problem and provide solutions.

1. “Eventually, I hope we’ll be able to exploit such opportunities.”
Eventually means “at some point in the future,” and this sentence expresses the writer’s sentiment that at some point in the future, he or she will hope. What the writer means, however, is that he or she hopes that at some point in the future, exploitation may occur. To accurately convey this meaning, “I hope” should either begin the sentence (“I hope that eventually, we’ll be able to exploit such opportunities”) or should be bracketed with a second comma to form a parenthetical (“Eventually, I hope, we’ll be able to exploit such opportunities”).

2. “By the end of the quarter, we are sure that productivity will improve.”
This sentence reads as if the writer were attempting to mention that he or she and others will be certain at the end of the period stated, but if that were true, the sentence should read, “By the end of the quarter, we will be sure that productivity will improve.” More likely, however, the statement has the same problem as the first example.

For the sake of clarity, the sentence should begin with the subject: “We are sure that by the end of the quarter, productivity will improve.” Alternatively, “We are sure,” to remove it from the chronological reference, should be parenthetical: “By the end of the quarter, we are sure, productivity will improve.”

3. “With some additional effort, they are confident that he will be successful.”
Again, the writer is erroneously associating the subject represented by the pronoun with the introductory phrase. The solution, as before, is to start with the subject (“They are confident that with some additional effort, he will be successful”) or to make the phrase containing the pronoun a parenthetical phrase (“With some additional effort, they are confident, he will be successful”).

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12 Responses to “3 Cases of Confusion with Introductory Adverbial Phrases”

  • Stephen

    I had never thought about this before. I probably make this mistake all the time. Thanks! I’ll keep an eye out for it from now on.

  • Nancy

    Commas have always been a little mysterious to me in certain uses. Can you tell me why, in the first examples of each of your solutions, commas are inserted? (“I hope that eventually, we’ll be able to . . .” “We are sure that by the end of the quarter, productivity will . . .”) My thought is that those statements are also parenthetical and need two commas: “I hope that, eventually, we’ll be able to . . . ” and “We are sure that, by the end of the quarter, productivity will . . . ” If I were writing those sentences, my preference would be to leave the commas out altogether.

    The use of commas seems to be changing and becoming more free form. Can you explain the rules that governed your use of the commas? Thanks.

  • Danny

    In #3, why not simply move “with some additional effort” to the end. I think it would take intentional obtuseness to misunderstand “They are confident that he will be successful with some additional effort.”

  • Bill

    I would rewrite all three differently.
    In #1: “I hope that we’ll eventually be able to exploit such opportunities.”
    In # 2: We are sure that productivity will improve by the end of the quarter.”
    In # 3: They are confident that he will be successful with some additional effort.”

  • joie

    Perhaps the third example could be written like this: “They are confident that, with some additional effort, he will be successful.” (I inserted an additional comma after “that”.)

    Too many parentheticals? Too many commas? Uh-oh! I love hyphens, too! E.g., do farmers have a co-op? Or a coop? (Bad example. Ostensibly, they could have both.)

  • R. E. Hunter

    I have the same concern as Nancy. In your corrected sentences where the adverbial phrase was moved to the middle, I would not have used a comma.

  • thebluebird11

    @Danny: No, I don’t think that your version conveys the intended meaning. I’m not as good as Mark at dissecting and explaining it, but your version makes it sound as if he will be successful with some additional effort, like maybe he has another project going somewhere. The intent here is that in order for him to succeed, he needs to put forth additional effort, work harder, and they are confident that this will be the case; i.e., that with his input of additional effort (harder work), he will be successful.

  • Fred

    In your first example, you appear to be picking nits. Yes, you are technically correct. However, the sentence reads smoothly and the everyday reader fully understands what the writer meant to convey. Perhaps writers who become so correct that their writing becomes stilted, become uninteresting to read and may get left in the dust by advancing writers?

  • Matt Gaffney

    The suggested “corrections” are among the worst I’ve ever seen. I suggest that the following are much, much better:

    1. “I hope that we’ll eventually be able to exploit such opportunities.”

    2. “We are sure that productivity will improve by the end of the quarter.”

    and

    3. “They are confident that, with some additional effort, he will be successful.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, this is such a great article. I really mean this: The three examples that were given are absolutely putrid!
    As for those who wish to defend the original writers (or speakers in some cases), I can just say “Shame on you.”

    Also, this piece of simple example that Mr. Nichol gave is wonderful:
    “For the sake of clarity, the sentence should begin with the subject.”
    This is the general rule for sentences in English, so why not stick to it?
    An exception to this is the “periodic sentence” (used sparingly) in which the most important part of the sentence is saved until its end – for justifiable emphasis. (Most people say “Duh?” at the very concept of a periodic sentence.

    Sir Winston Churchill was a master in the use of periodic sentences, especially in oratory. Here is is most noteworthy example:
    “Never in the course of human events was so much owed by so many to so few.”
    For people who know about the history of the 20th Century, the “so few” of Churchill refers to the superb fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force and the R.C.A.F. who defended Great Britain against the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in the fall of 1940.

    The members of the R.A.F. were a minority of the armed forces of Britain, and the fighter squadrons of the R.A.F. were a minority of the squadrons of the R.A.F. (with the majority of them flying bombers, overwater patrol planes, reconnasissance planes, trainers, etc.), and the fighter pilots being a small minority of the personnel of Fighter Command (mostly mechanics, logistics people, fuel and ammunition handlers, radar and radio communications people, etc. I takes a lot different kind of people to keep a fighter squadon in the air and fighting.)

    Most of those pilots were British, but there was a significant minority of Canadians, South Africans, Americans (all volunteers, w/o any authority from the U.S. Government, despite what some movies have said), New Zealanders, Irishmen, and a sprinkling of Australians.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    English that is technically correct is needed first and formost.
    Then everything else follows that.
    I don’t have any sympathy for those who complain about things being “technically correct”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The use of a hyphen following the prefix “co” has practically disasppered in North American Englihsh. (I am including Canadians, too.) The hyphen is needed for such things as “co-op”, in which the omission of the hyphen gives a different word – and one with fewer syllables, too.

    Here are some examples of the way to use that prefix:

    coaxial, cocaptain, codirector, codriver**, coeducation, coefficient, cofactor, cohabitate, colinear, colingual, colocate, comanager, comingle, cooperate, copilot, coplanar, coprime, coproduce (in industry), coproducer (in show business), coresponsible, coterminus, and covalent.

    **In some long-distance car races, such as transcontinental ones, each car has to codrivers, with one driving while the other one rests, sleeps, eats, etc.

    coefficient, cofactor, colinear, coplanar, and coprime are all terms in mathematics, and there might be more that start with “co”. Two numbers are coprimes whever that do not have any common factors besides 1, and an example of this is 16 and 27.

    Two people are colingual whenever they speak at least on language in common.

    If two different railroad lines end in the same city, or even in the same railroad station, then they have a coterminus.

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