Sunday, August 3, 2014

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 3: Commas in Participial Phrases

Commas with Participial Phrases

Good writing is about more than grammar and punctuation.  It's about great characters, difficult decisions, high stakes, and insight into the human condition.  But...it's also about good grammar and punctuation.  Sometimes, important marks gets omitted, like the poor little comma in the illustration here.  Perhaps the omission is in the effort to make writing smoother.  Unfortunately, it often has the opposite effect.  Here's one type of common omission..   

When you have an independent clause (“Nathan stumbled along in front of the guard”), followed by a dependent clause starting with an "–ing" verb (“looking for ways to escape”), ask yourself whether you can stick who was/that was in the middle.  Does it still make sense? 

Example 1:
Test:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard WHO WAS looking for ways to escape.  Um…the guard was looking for ways to escape?  No, Nathan was looking for ways to escape.  You therefore need a comma in the middle to indicate that the subject of the first clause is also the one doing the second clause. 

Correct:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard, looking for ways to escape.
Incorrect:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard looking for ways to escape.

Example 2:  I sat on the sofa sagging in the corner.
Test:  I sat on the sofa THAT WAS sagging in the corner.  Makes sense.  No comma.

Example 3:  I sat on the sofa massaging my ankle.
Test:  I sat on the sofa THAT WAS massaging my ankle.  Cool sofa!  I want one.  But really, that’s not what you meant at all. The sofa wasn't massaging your ankle.  You were.  So you need the commas before the –ing.

Correct:  I sat on the sofa, massaging my ankle.

Example 4: “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone looking in horror at the fire.
Test:  “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone THAT WAS looking in horror at the fire.  Hmm…that's a really smart phone.

Correct:  “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone, looking in horror at the fire.

Use the "THAT WAS" test: 
If you can stick that was in the middle and it still makes sense, no comma.
If you stick in that was and it changes the meaning, put a comma between the clauses.

Note:  It works in other situations too.  Other adjective or participial phrases modifying a subject earlier in the sentence have this same comma pattern.

Example 6:  She continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings oblivious to the threat at her front gate. 
Test:  Liz continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings WHO WERE oblivious to the threat at her front gate.  Technically, the plants were oblivious, but you probably mean that Liz was oblivious.

Correct:  Liz continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings, oblivious to the threat at her front gate.  

Often this mistake just requires that your reader pause a moment and re-evaluate, but sometimes it leads to mass confusion.  "John walked up to the man kissing the belly dancer."  Obviously the man was kissing the belly dancer.  If you meant that John was kissing the belly dancer, your readers aren't going to understand, so put in the comma.

NOTE:  If you're a person who doesn't use any commas unless absolutely necessary, you can sometimes omit this comma.  However, if there's any possibility that your reader will misunderstand, it's best to follow the rule and include it.   

Want more punctuation tips?  
Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue

Melinda Brasher writes mainstream short stories, science fiction, fantasy, and travel articles.  To find her work online, in print, or as e-books, explore her website:  melindabrasher.com

7 comments:

  1. A very tidy and helpful lesson on an often mis-used bit of punctuation. Thank you, Melinda.

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  2. Melinda, great tips on using the comma and very helpful examples.

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  3. Thank-you, Melinda. I appreciate punctuation reminders such as this.

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  4. Loved this because you made it such fun and so it'll be easy to remember. Thanks, Melinda.

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  5. Thanks. I love funny examples of confusing punctuation. I just saw a sign yesterday in a national park that said, "For Animal's safety and yours, please shut the door." I suppose that "Animal" could be the ranger's dog or something. Otherwise, I think a proofreader is in order. No offense, National Park Service. I love you.

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  6. Hi Melinda, great post, thanks for the tips. When I took a copy writing course our instructor told us from then on we'd find punctuation errors everywhere for the rest of our lives. She was so right! People actually put money into signs that are incorrect! That's what always amazes me! I like your example--very funny!

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  7. Hi Melinda,
    Thank you for this. My critique partners are always catching me out on this one!

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