Melt Copy Clinic: Why random commas don’t go before verbs
For this week's #WritingTipWednesday, head writer Rich looks at a common mistake that writers of all kinds make (and it is a mistake – trust him): inserting a random comma before a verb with no good reason...
I’ll be honest – there’s not a lot of science behind how I choose our Wednesday writing tips. They mostly come about when I read a linguistic error that’s just so upsetting I can’t let it go, or when I notice an odd quirk becoming more prevalent – unfortunately as an increasingly widespread mistake rather than the natural evolution of writing. This week’s tip is mainly the latter, with a bit of the former.
That random comma you want to put before a verb for some reason? Don’t.
Just because a subject (the thing or person that does a verb) is long doesn’t mean it should be separated from its verb by a comma. If I’ve lost you already, fear not – all will become clear. Our example will help:
The fact that the industry is being heavily disrupted at the same time as seeing major growth, should not be ignored.
The comma in that sentence has no more business being there than an England cricket legend does covering Boney M. for a World Cup single, and its effect is much the same: distracting, confusing and without value.
And yet this is a common mistake (the comma thing; not the World Cup single – that’s been covered elsewhere). The main reason people do this is because they (subconsciously) think, ‘I’ve got a long sentence – must need a comma. I think there’s a sort of gap before the verb – it can go there.’
Some ‘mistakes’ in writing and language eventually stop being mistakes through prevalence – if everyone is making an ‘error’ then it’s no longer an error (see number three from Steven Pinker in this list). Only that really only works when the ‘error’ has some value (say, if it’s more economical) or is at least ambiguous. Often this is when spoken language makes it way into the written corpus. That’s not the case with this one – it just doesn’t make sense.
The confusion in this sentence arises because it just has a really long subject*: The fact that the industry is being heavily disrupted at the same time as seeing major growth. The main part of that subject is simply ‘the fact’ (hence the bold). There is some stuff in between, but it doesn’t change the fact that inserting the comma is the same as writing:
The fact, should not be ignored.
And that’s very clearly wrong, right?
If in doubt: Ask ‘what does it add?’
You know that rule you might have been taught in school – ‘use a comma anywhere you’d pause’? Well it’s nonsense, but, actually, it’s helpful here. Read the example out loud and pause where the comma is. It sounds wrong. The comma adds no value. That’s because commas serve a few specific grammatical functions (over to the great Larry Trask). Randomly separating a subject from its verb is not one of them.
The exception: Bracketing commas
You can still have a verb after a comma. That’s when there’s something totally different going on in a sentence and you’re using commas as brackets (parenthesis, if you’re into that kind of thing):
The fact that the industry is being disrupted by developments in tech, as well as a range of other factors, should not be ignored.
You need two commas – one either side of ‘as well as a range of other factors’ – to indicate parenthesis (opening and closing brackets, basically). If you didn’t have the bracketed bit**, it would be:
The fact that the industry is being disrupted by developments should not be ignored
Now, I’ve made a few assumptions in this one; namely, that you’re happy with ‘verb’, ‘noun’, etc. If you’re not, I highly recommend going back to basics.
*As a rule, I’ll gloss over technical bits like this to avoid talking about noun phrase heads and adjuncts and blah blah blah… If that kind of thing interests you, get in touch with me on LinkedIn or just replace the info on the email address you’ll find on our contact page with my first name. If you’ve actually read this far, you totally get my email address.
**Adjunct. See above.