5 Cases for Requiring a Comma Before a Sentence Tag

By Mark Nichol

A sentence tag is a word or phrase added to the beginning or end of a statement for emphasis or to provide more information. For the following sentences, I discuss the necessity of preceding end-of-sentence tags with a comma.

1. “I shouldn’t have been surprised really.”
Without a comma separating really from the rest of the sentence, the implication is that really is an adverb modifying how the writer should not have been surprised (really, as in factually, and the opposite of allegedly). However, its function is merely to emphasize the point: “I shouldn’t have been surprised, really.”

2. “I was in the other room at the time actually.”
This sentence indicates that the writer was in the other room in an actual manner, rather than figuratively, but that’s not the literal meaning. The writer has been challenged about his or her location when an incident occurred, and the intent, again, is to emphasize. A comma is required before actually to signal this distinction: “I was in the other room at the time, actually.”

The idea could also be conveyed with actually inserted elsewhere in the sentence (in descending order of elegance): “Actually, I was in the other room at the time” or “I was, actually, in the other room at the time” or “I was in the other room, actually, at the time.” (Note that not all adverbial tags are so flexible about location; try these variations in the first example, and you’ll see that really seems to feel right only as a concluding tag.)

3. “We did it all right.”
This sentence implies that the writer is evaluating a merely competent performance. With a comma inserted before “all right,” the implication is of emphasis on the fact of the accomplishment: “We did it, all right.”

4. “They offered a free pass to boot.”
Without a comma preceding “to boot” (which means “as a bonus”), the phrase appears to describe an action that is, thanks to the pass, complimentary. The comma signals that “to boot” is an appendage that idiomatically offers additional information: “They offered a free pass, to boot.”

5. “Geology has an impact on biology and vice versa.”
As written, this sentence seems to equate biology and vice versa as two things geology has an impact on. But “vice versa,” meaning “the opposite,” applies to the entire sentence preceding it, so it must be set off from the sentence: “Geology has an impact on biology, and vice versa.”

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6 Responses to “5 Cases for Requiring a Comma Before a Sentence Tag”

  • Silvia G. Martínez

    Thank you Mark for your information. I would like to ask you about two questions : what’s the meaning of ‘tag’ and on the other hand as far as I remember TAG sentences are always taught as a construction closing any statemente. Why are you saying that it can either go at the beginning (or end) of a sentence? Once again, thank you for your enlightening contributions.

  • b ramsay

    (. . . try these variations in the first example, and you’ll see that really seems to feel right only as a concluding tag.)

    I really can’t agree with this one. To my Brit-raised, Canadian-modified ear, really belongs and fits best like this:

    I really shouldn’t have been surprised. OR
    I shouldn’t really have been surprised.

    Hanging it on the end makes it sound like an afterthought, which it surely isn’t.

  • Iulian Ionescu

    Thank you for these examples. I never seem to get the comma down to a science, and every time I get in situations like the ones above, I wind up googling it. With these simple examples that cover a lot of situations, I should be good for a while.

    Thanks,

    Iulian

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Mr. Nichol completely on this article.
    However, item number four is hard to understand, and it seems to have one or more editing mistakes in it. Could you double-check it, please.

    Curiously, the comment by Silvia G. Martínez is hard to understand because of its missing commas! This phrase: “tag” and “on the other hand”, seems to be missing its quotation marks. I emphasize “seems” because it could be missing two commas, instead.

    Tags are easy to understand, and I made a point of using two of them: “curiously” and “instead”.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    I don’t see a problem with #4. I would like a free pass to boot (someone)…who is offering the free pass, and where are they?! LOL

  • Sally

    LOL @ theblubird11

    I sometimes feel the same!

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