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LindaHilton

Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

Currently reading

The Making of Donald Trump
David Cay Johnston
Progress: 76/263 pages
Women's Gothic and Romantic Fiction: A Reference Guide (American Popular Culture)
Kay Mussell
Progress: 17/157 pages
The Looking-Glass Portrait
Linda Hilton
Really Neat Rocks: A casual introduction to the rocks & gems of Arizona and the lapidary arts
Linda Hilton
Progress: 61/61 pages
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer
The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers
Progress: 20 %

A Structured Language

In response to Three R's post on grammar here, I thought I'd write this little essay.  And I hope I don't come across as too pedantic in it.  ;-)  Furthermore, I can only speak in regards to American-English usage; British may be different, especially regarding the use of commas in particular instances.

 

English grammar -- including all those pesky parts of sentences and all the verb tenses and the rules of punctuation -- is primarily based on one unit: The Sentence.  By that I mean that how the words are used and placed in the sentence determines which form of each word is correct and which punctuation to use, as well as what they all mean.

 

A sentence has a subject and a predicate:  Something or someone is doing or being something.

 

Jack reads.

Helena is writing.

Karl composed a sonnet.

Patrice has applied for a job as a librarian.

Antonio is tired after reading all three volumes of Lord of the Rings non-stop.

 

Subjects can be compound:

Jack and Maureen read.

Helena and her children are writing.

Karl, Phillip, and Emmanuel composed sonnets about their girlfriends.

Patrice and half the other graduate students on campus have applied for a job as a librarian.

 

Predicates can be compound:

Jack reads and paints.

Helena and her children are writing a book and are planning to illustrate it with their own photographs.

 

Phrases are not sentences; they lack the subject-predicate structure.  Phrases modify -- describe, limit, clarify, identify -- other parts of the sentence.

 

"About their girlfriends" is a prepositional phrase, as is "for a job."  "To illustrate their book" is an infinitive phrase that serves as the direct object.  The different types of phrases -- prepositional, infinitive, participial, etc. -- can also serve different functions within any given sentence.  "About their girlfriends" is an adjectival phrase because it modifies the noun "sonnets."  "To illustrate it with their own photographs" is a noun phrase; even though the infinitive form of a verb is used, it's the function of the phrase in the sentence, not the form of the word, that determines what it is.

 

So far, all of these examples have been "simple" sentences, some with compound subjects, some with compound predicates, and some with both compound subject and compound predicate.  A "compound" sentence is actually one that joins, either with a conjunction or semi-colon, two (or more) otherwise complete sentences into a single sentence.

 

Jack reads, and Walter paints.

Helena is writing, but the children are playing video games.

Karl composed a sonnet about his girlfriend; she put it on Facebook.

 

 

"Complex" sentences contain clauses.  Needless to say, complex sentences require a little more analysis and understanding to figure out the correct punctuation.

 

Clauses aren't sentences, but they aren't phrases either.  Clauses have subjects and predicates like sentences, but they can't stand alone as complete thoughts the way sentences do.  Clauses still function as modifiers. That's probably the key to distinguishing between the two:  If it's a modifier, it's probably a clause.

 

I couldn't go to the theatre because I was sick.

When Laura arrives from San Diego, Hugo will pick her up at the airport.

The gown that Mary wears in Act II needs to be mended.

 

These three examples are dependent or subordinate clauses that modify a part of the main thought of the sentence.  If those clauses are removed from the sentence, the rest of it will still be grammatically complete; the clauses themselves, however, would be incomplete and/or grammatically incorrect.

 

The determination of whether or not to use commas to set off clauses will usually depend less on the identification of the clause as dependent and more on whether it is essential or non-essential, restrictive or non-restrictive.

 

Exception, and a convention rather than a hard and fast "rule": 

**Introductory clauses almost always are set off by commas.**

When Laura arrives from San Diego, Hugo will pick her up at the airport.  (with comma)

Hugo will pick Laura up at the airport when she arrives from San Diego.  (no comma)

 

I couldn't go to the theatre because I was sick.

Because I was sick, I couldn't go to the theatre.

 

If the modification supplied by the clause is essential to the meaning and function of the rest of the sentence, it should not be set off by commas.

 

The cave where Ernie found the crystals has been closed for safety reasons.

The cave, where Ernie found the crystals, has been closed for safety reasons.

 

In other words, will the sentence mean the same thing if that clause is removed; or is the restriction of the subject to that particular cave more important than that the cave has been closed?

 

The gown that Mary wears in Act II needs to be mended.

The gown, that Mary wears in Act II, needs to be mended.

 

The meaning of the sentence can change dramatically if the clause is separated from it and made non-essential.  (And no, I haven't even addressed the issue of "which" and "that," 'cause that's a whole 'nother thing!)

 

IF the clause can be turned into an appositive -- which is a restating of the original -- by use of "which is" or "which are" or a similar construction and not lose any of its original meaning, then the clause is probably non-essential and can be set off with commas.

 

The cave, (which is the one) where Ernie found the crystals, has been closed for safety reasons.

 

 

Another rule that applies much more strictly to written American-English than to British-English usage, at least from what I've seen, is that the subject and predicate of a sentence should never be separated from each other by a comma or any other punctuation.  If an internal phrase or clause or appositive or address or series or any other part of the sentence is set off by commas within or between the subject and predicate, that separation needs to be rejoined by another comma.

 

Correct:  The red dress, which Mary wears in Act II, needs to be mended.

Incorrect:  The red dress Mary wears in Act II, needs to be mended.

 

Correct:  The cave where Ernie found the crystals has been closed for safety reasons.

Correct:  The cave, where Ernie found the crystals, has been closed for safety reasons.

Incorrect:  The cave where Ernie found the crystals, has been closed for safety reasons.

 

Correct:  I've told you, Jack, to leave the gate unlocked.

Incorrect:  I've told you Jack, to leave the gate unlocked.

Correct:  Jack, I've told you to leave the gate unlocked.

 

Correct:  My son's teacher, the mayor's wife, has a degree from Stanford.

Incorrect:  My son's teacher, the mayor's wife has a degree from Stanford.

 

 

There will almost always be exceptions to any "rule" in English grammar.  And there will almost always be people who read correct grammar incorrectly:  They want commas where commas really don't belong.  If those people complain, ignore them or just point out the rule that corrects them.  (ETA:  Only kidding!!  I forget some people take my sarcasm seriously.)  

 

Much more important, however, is to always keep in mind that if the application of correct structure and appropriate punctuation leaves the intended meaning of the sentence still unclear, the writer should rewrite it so it is as little likely to be misunderstood as possible.  The rules are there to facilitate clarity.  Seriously, yeah, they are! 

 

;-)