A Comma (or Its Absence) Can Change a Sentence’s Message

By Mark Nichol

Writers are divided in opinion about punctuating introductory words or phrases—and often, they are at war with themselves with the topic. Even adherents of open punctuation will generally insert a comma after an adverb, whether it is transitional, like however, or descriptive, like suddenly, and will follow even a brief modifying phrase such as “according to the study” or “contrary to popular belief” with pausing punctuation.

But somewhere in between—in the case of a short opening phrase like “last year” or “in retrospect”—many people believe a comma setting the phrase off from the sentence’s main clause is unnecessary. For consistency, I advocate generally using a comma regardless of the phrase’s length, but even though I am a close-punctuation adherent, I realize there are exceptions.

Consider the use of please, for example. Read this sentence: “Please sit down.” Now, read this one. “Please, sit down.” Did you read them differently? I hope so. The intent behind each statement is distinct: “Please sit down” is an imperative barely tempered by a courtesy term; the person to whom the statement is delivered is expected to comply. By contrast, “Please, sit down” is an entreaty; the speaker sincerely hopes that the other person will accept the invitation.

There’s a difference, too, between “Of course you would say whatever you thought I wanted to hear” and “Of course, you would say whatever you thought I wanted to hear.” The first sentence is delivered with some heat; the speaker’s tone is wounded and derisive. The second statement, by contrast, is more measured and reflective.

These examples are more subtle than when one decides whether one should punctuate, for example, “In time you will understand why I acted as I did”: You either agree with me that if one is to punctuate a more extensive introductory phrase (“When you have time to reflect, you will understand why I acted as I did”)—and most writers will choose to do so—it’s only logical to treat a more concise opening phrase the same way (otherwise, where does one draw the line?), or you don’t agree. But sometimes, what a sentence communicates changes with the mere insertion or omission of a comma, and the writer should be sensitive to such nuances to help the reader read between the lines.

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4 Responses to “A Comma (or Its Absence) Can Change a Sentence’s Message”

  • venqax

    I understand your points about the differences in connotation between versions of “Please sit down” and “Please, sit down.” However, I thought things like “however” being necessarily followed by a comma were “black-letter law” when it came to grammar. Do some say otherwise?

  • Thebluebird11

    @venqax: I’m not sure if I have any personal hard and fast rules about this topic, but with the word “however,” I think there are times it definitely needs a comma after it, and times it definitely doesn’t. This is because sometimes the word means “in any which way,” as in, “However you solve the problem is fine with me.” This example is not confusing, but I imagine that with some more thought, I (or you) could come up with sentences in which a comma is definitely (or definitely NOT) called for after the word “however,” to avoid confusion. Actually I had this head-butting with a supervisor at my previous job, where I did editing, and I edited someone’s work, I think I took the comma out after a “however,” (because of the intended meaning of the word), but she got upset and told me I was wrong because she said you ALWAYS put a comma after “however. ” It hardly pays to try to reason with a donkey, so I think I emailed her a link to another DWT post on this subject and let it go at that.

  • venqax

    True, I guess I was too broad. When I said “always” I was only referring to when the word “however” is used transitionally, e.g., “However, don’t take my word for it.” That comma, AFAIK, is not optional. I wasn’t implying that a final comma is part of the spelling of the word so would be required in all cases where the word itself is used. “Do it however you want”, “Let’s put the word however in our list of H words.” etc.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    I generally prefer to include the comma there. But sometimes, omitting it can aid the effect you’re trying to create. E.g. in “Suddenly he…”, you can convey a greater sense of pace and urgency without the comma.

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