Punctuating Sentences with Disguised Subordinate Clauses

By Mark Nichol

Usually, a subordinate clause is obvious, as in the case of this one you’re reading right now. Intuitively, you know to separate it from the main clause (in the previous sentence, the first six words) with a comma. But sometimes, as in each of the following sentences, the first word in the subordinate clause may deceive the writer’s eye. Discussion and revision for each example provides clarity.

1. You may submit a file in a different format provided that the content is the same as in the attached template.

Writers may be confused into thinking that in this sentence, provided is a verb, but it is a conjunction (meaning “on the condition”) serving as a bridge between the main clause and the subordinate clause, and it must be preceded by a comma: “You may submit a file in a different format, provided that the content is the same as in the attached template.” Alternatively, the two clauses can be reversed, although in this version, the context is not as clear: “Provided that the content is the same as in the attached template, you may submit a file in a different format.”

2. Insurance companies and other financial services are likely to follow suit given similar pressures in their markets from new entrants.

Just as in the previous example, a conjunction—in this case, given—is easily confused for a verb. Here, as above, it links a main clause with a subordinate clause, and a comma should precede it: “Insurance companies and other financial services are likely to follow suit, given similar pressures in their markets from new entrants.” However, in this case, the sentence flows better if the subordinate clause is inserted into the middle of the sentence as a parenthetical: “Insurance companies and other financial services, given similar pressures in their markets from new entrants, are likely to follow suit.”

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

Here, the bridging word (only, here meaning “with the result that”) is an adverb rather than a conjunction, but the function is similar, and the need for a preceding comma is sustained: “The coach pursued a star player, only to have a deal fall just short.”

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4 Responses to “Punctuating Sentences with Disguised Subordinate Clauses”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Punctuating Sentences with Disguised Subordinate Clauses” has a significantly different double meaning! The other meaning is best seen from a salient example case:
    “Richard Nixon had a bad way of punctuating his sentences with foul expletives and epithets.” That was heard in this presidential tapes in which he said things like “@#&$*!!++” over and over again.
    When his tapes were transcribed, these lead to the notorious expression “expletive deleted”, repeatedly.
    In contrast, we can imagine some person punctuating his/her sentences with subordinate clauses like “for whom the bell tolls”. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

  • Petra

    Pardon me if I take issue, but you’ve concocted a somewhat tangled example in your opening sentence, so the point you’re making is not clearly illustrated.

    The sentence does indeed contain a subordinate clause; but it may not at first be very obvious and it is expressly ( and correctly) not set off with a comma. This is for good reason, for it is a defining relative clause (relating to “this one”), with, furthermore, a “hidden” relative pronoun (“that”, understood).

    To make this clearer, if you omit the relative clause, you end up with a simple sentence, not a compound one.
    Usually, a subordinate clause is obvious, as in the case of this one.
    There is one finite verb here. The phrase following the second comma are merely an attributive.

  • Cleona Patterson

    I too was taught that:
    1. If the subordinate conjunction is put at the beginning of a sentence there is a comma in the middle.
    2. If a subordinate is put in the middle of a sentence it replaces the comma.

    In fact, this is what I teach my ESL students!?

  • Benjamin

    I was taught to never use a comma before a subordinating clause as you have here. I believe you even said something similar in a post about the rare times to use a comma before the conjunction because: “A straightforward sentence such as ‘We’re off to see the wizard because of the wonderful things he does’ requires no comma; the meaning of this sentence … is unambiguous.”

    I can’t say I agree with any of your edits.

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