3 Cases of Missing Commas

By Mark Nichol

The presence or absence of a single punctuation mark can create confusion or ambiguity about the meaning of a sentence. Three sentences illustrating this problem, each followed by discussion and revision, follow:

1. These factors make it hard for management to decide what to communicate to directors given the board’s crowded agenda.

The lack of punctuation preceding given creates the implication that it is a verb that refers to something the directors are being handed. But here, given is a preposition signaling that information about a mitigating factor is about to be imparted, and punctuation should separate this tacked-on phrase from the main clause: “These factors make it hard for management to decide what to communicate to directors, given the board’s crowded agenda.” (The additional phrase could also begin the sentence: “Given the board’s crowded agenda, these factors make it hard for management to decide what to communicate to directors.”)

2. It’s not a real pleasant experience to tell you the truth.

As written, this sentence suggests that the writer does not enjoy telling the truth to the reader (or, if the sentence is a quotation, to someone the speaker is talking to), but this is not the writer’s (or speaker’s) intent. To signal that “to tell the truth” is simply a conversational aside, it should be separated from the main clause: “It’s not a real pleasant experience, to tell you the truth.” (As in the previous sentence, the modifying phrase can begin the sentence: “To tell you the truth, it’s not a real pleasant experience.”)

3. The coach had pursued a star athlete only to have a deal fall just short.

This sentence reads as if the coach had tried to recruit an athlete for the sole purpose of having a deal fall short; only could be misconstrued as a synonym for merely. But the part of the sentence starting with only is a modifying phrase describing the result of a sincere recruiting effort, and it should be set off from the main clause: “The coach had pursued a star athlete, only to have a deal fall just short.” (Unlike the dependent clauses and the main clauses in the sentences above, this pair of clauses cannot be transposed without heavy revision.)

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