Introductory Adverbial Elements: II.b. PHRASES: When a Comma Is Needed--and When It Is Not
by Tina Blue
September 3, 2000
This article will be concerned with introductory modifying phrases. Notice that I have changed my tune here. Up to this point I have been focusing on introductory adverbial elements, but now I am specifying introductory modifying elements. There is a reason for the sudden change: Although single-word and clausal introductory modifiers are usually adverbial, introductory modifying phrases are as likely to be adjectival as adverbial. Nevertheless, the same set of guidelines will be applicable to both introductory adverbial phrases and introductory adjectival phrases.
When the introductory modifying element is a phrase, then whether or not it is set off by a comma usually depends on what sort of phrase it is. 1.A. If the introductory modifying phrase contains a verbal (i.e., an infinitive, a participle, or a gerund), set the phrase off with a comma.
--To play well, you will have to get into much better condition.
--In order to accomplish anything, you have to have clearly defined goals.
--Racing desperately from door to door, he finally realized that no one was going to respond to his frantic pounding.
--Tapping her foot softly, she kept time to the music.
--Watching how her older sister handled the ball, Diane began to realize how much practice must go into developing such skill.
--By watching how her older sister handled the ball, Diane began to understand how much practice must go into developing such skill.
(NOTE: Because an "ing" verb form used as a noun is a gerund, while the same word used as an adjective is a participle, the participle "Watching" in one sentence becomes a gerund when it is used as the object of the preposition in the next example, "By watching. . . .")
--On hearing the news, we all began to scream and jump with delight.
NOTE: If an introductory modifying phrase containing an infinitive is quite short, it is often acceptable to omit the comma.
--To get home I usually beg a friend for a ride.
1.B. Neither an introductory infinitive phrase nor an introductory gerund phrase used as a subject is a modifying phrase. Do not separate a subject from its verb.
--Remembering the good times, was not even possible for him at that moment.
--Remembering the good times was not even possible for him at that moment.
--To achieve success as a dancer, was her secret dream.
--To achieve success as a dancer was her secret dream.
1.C. Sometimes an introductory phrase consists merely of adjectives in an "inverted" order (i.e., out of their normal position with respect to the noun they modify). In such a case, set the adjective phrase off with a comma.
--Quiet and shy, Marie was often overlooked both in school and at home.
--Shiny, new, and expensive, John's convertible was the envy of the neighborhood.
2. Most introductory modifying phrases without verbals (and some with) will be prepositional phrases. Many people wrongly assume that all introductory prepositional phrases should be followed by a comma. In fact, the default mode for an introductory prepositional phrase with no verbal is that it is NOT set off by a comma, unless it is very long, or if there is a possibility that it might be misread. **
---SHORT INTRODUCTORY MODIFYING PHRASES---
--Without my friends I would feel quite vulnerable.
--In February we will select the finalists.
--By next week I should have my research paper finished.
--On the table you will find that book you asked for.
---LONG INTRODUCTORY MODIFYING PHRASES---
--On the second table in the hallway by the exit, you will find that book you asked for.
--With so many other qualified candidates for the position, I would be very surprised if they actually decided to hire me.
---POSSIBILITY OF MISREADING---
--After eating the children cleared the table.
--After eating, the children cleared the table.
--The day after another Girl Scout showed up, wanting to sell us more boxes of cookies.
--The day after, another Girl Scout showed up, wanting to sell us more boxes of cookies.
--Instead of a few or a hundred thousands came.
--Instead of a few or a hundred, thousands came.
**A community college in my area puts out a sheet of comma rules for its English classes that includes the "rule" that an introductory prepositional phrase should always be followed by a comma. The "rule" is wrong, but I've seen it in other places that purport to teach students correct usage. For example, the 1988 edition of The Prentice Hall Handbook for Writers that I have on my shelf makes this statement: "Introductory prepositional or verbal phrases and introductory clauses may be adverbial, modifying the verb in the main clause or the whole main clause, or they may serve as adjectives, modifying the subject of the main clause. Whatever their function, they should always be separated from the main clause by a comma unless they are very short and there is no possibility of misreading" (150). Although the general point is essentially the same as the guideline I have provided, the phrasing (note that "always," and "whatever their function") strongly suggests that using the comma after an introductory prepositional phrase is almost mandatory, which is simply not the case.