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.