Comma After Introductory Phrases

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks why there is no comma after the introductory phrase in the following sentence from one of my recent posts:

At a recent writers’ conference I heard a successful self-published author say, “Readers are not looking for great writing; they’re looking for a great story.”

I formerly put a comma after every introductory word or adverb phrase of any length, but I’ve begun leaving it out unless I think its absence will create reader double take, as in the following:

Before eating the members held the business portion of the meeting.

Below the cars covered the lawn.

Until the morning fishing is out of the question.

These introductory phrases demand to be set off:

Before eating, the members held the business portion of the meeting.

Below, the cars covered the lawn.

Until the morning, fishing is out of the question.

Authoritative recommendations vary.

An online grammar site sponsored by Capital Community College in Hartford, Connecticut states:

It is permissible, even commonplace, to omit a comma after most brief introductory elements — a prepositional phrase, an adverb, or a noun phrase.

The Chicago Manual of Style also indicates that the comma after an introductory adverb phrase may be left out:

An introductory adverbial phrase is often set off by a comma but need not be unless misreading is likely. Shorter adverbial phrases are less likely to merit a comma than longer ones.

The Purdue Owl also advises that the comma after some introductory elements, such as “a brief prepositional phrase,” may be left out. Unlike some of the other sources, the OWL gives us a clue as to what we may consider “brief”: “a single phrase of fewer than five words.”

But while some authorities condone leaving out the comma if no confusion can result, others caution discretion as the better part of valor:

The Longman Handbook: Sometimes the comma after an introductory word or word group is required; sometimes it is optional. When you are uncertain, stay on the safe side: use a comma.

Penguin Writer’s Manual: Even where there is no real danger of confusion or absurdity, it is usually better to insert a comma than not.

And our own Precise Edit: Use commas even after short introductory descriptions for consistency.

As with whether to use the serial comma in a list of adjectives, writers have a choice regarding the use of a comma to set off an introductory phrase.

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13 Responses to “Comma After Introductory Phrases”

  • Laura

    As an editor, I’m inclined to agree with you: leave out the comma where there is no risk of ambiguity. However, at the same time there is always an argument for consistency and so if one introductory phrase is ambiguous without the comma, then perhaps the rest should contain commas for consistency’s sake. Good article.

  • Danny

    Is it just me, or is the Penguin’s recommendation internally inconsistent?
    “Even where there is no real danger of confusion or absurdity it is usually better to insert a comma than not.” I would put a comma after “absurdity.”

  • Maeve

    Danny,
    Don’t blame Penguin!

    I was hoping that I could get that comma restored before anyone noticed, but alas, my readers are just too astute for me to get away with anything. I managed to drop the crucial comma when I typed the sentence. It will be corrected.

    Thanks.

  • Curtis

    I’m another one who favors playing it safe and using the comma. The minimization of punctuation seems to be a trend these days, but it’s not always a good practice. By contrast, though, I recently found a very old book which was liberally sprinkled with commas that any twenty-first-century reader would find unneeded.

  • Gordon Havens

    C’mon, kids. Comma usage should rely on common sense, not contrary rules.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Danny beat me to it.

    Gordon, I think you mean arbitrary, not contrary. But they really are neither arbitrary nor contrary.

    I was taught to omit the comma for short introductory phrases, provided the omission did not create problems. However, “short” was left to the student.

    The comma often reflects the place where an oral reader would take a breath. Music is even marked with a similar symbol so singers take a breath in unison. I think that we should resist the temptation to gratuitously omit commas, especially as literacy declines.

  • Precise Edit

    The OWL advice is arbitrary and often inappropriate (and I have told them so). Why 5 words and not 4 or 6? As the initial examples demonstrate, introductory phrases with fewer than 5 words may need that comma to simplify the interpretation.

    I always use the comma, for two reasons. First, the writer may not accurately predict what will be clear or confusing to the reader, so using the comma will reduce the potential for confusion. Second, using the comma is never wrong, even if not necessary, so by always using the comma, the punctuation is consistent.

    When I write, my goal is to communicate. I prefer using punctuation in a manner that maximizes my ability to communicate clearly.

  • Maeve

    After writing the post, I’ve decided to opt for an always-use-the-comma policy.

  • Precise Edit

    Hurrah, Maeve!

  • Dane Zeller

    As my ninth grade English teacher said, “punctuation creates the rhythm of your story. A comma is a pause in the writer’s/reader’s mind.”

    Therefore, Miss Grimshaw would not wonder the length of the introductory phrase, but ask if the writer wanted the reader to pause.

  • Maeve

    Precise Edit,
    Punctuation is the least appealing topic I write about. Your explanations are always a treat because they are clear and easy to remember.

  • Rich Wheeler

    What Precise Edit said. Making exceptions to rules makes our writing more difficult for international readers to process.

  • Leon

    I think what happens is that an experienced writer’s calculated choice becomes an inexperienced writer’s bad habit.

    The short pause created by adding a comma is better than having to stop altogether and reread a sentence. For example, this sentence from The Walker in Shadows: “A mile or so from the highway the road divided,” would have benefited from adding a comma after “highway.”

    I think It should be done for the sake of cultivating good habits alone.

    I also think it’s a mistake to think of the comma as adding a “pause.” Forget about rhythm. Everyone’s rhythm is different.

    I look at it as more of a way to separate ideas and format my writing to be as easily understood as possible.

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