Is this comma really necessary?
February 7, 2019 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I am working on a text for school, and one of my professors is adamant that I should use a comma between what she calls a "parenthetical gerund phrase" (or something) and the verb. I hate this comma with a passion because it looks horrible and feels wrong. However I am not a native English speaker so I am not super confident about this. Is this comma really a thing? (Examples, after, clicking).

The content of my text is academic, but this would be a grammatical equivalent:

>>>"Whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter is a key skill in the production of sweets and desserts"

The Professor insists there should be a comma between "batter" and "is". The sentence would then be:

>>>"Whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter, is a key skill in the production of sweets and desserts"

She also says that if the subject portion of my sentence were shorter, the comma would not be necessary. I hate it and I think it fucks up the sentence completely. Is this really a thing? If so, could you explain why?
posted by Tarumba to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you are, right.
posted by megatherium at 10:52 AM on February 7 [38 favorites]


Your professor is wrong.
posted by mishafletch at 10:55 AM on February 7 [83 favorites]


Some people think that the purpose of the comma is to indicate where you would take a breath if you were speaking. That's not the purpose of the comma and using it that way is wrong. Not everyone knows that.
posted by bleep at 10:56 AM on February 7 [18 favorites]


In my years of proofreading and editing, I have never heard of doing what your professor wants.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:56 AM on February 7 [37 favorites]


I might give a pass to a sentence like:
"Whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix, for cake batter, is a key skill in the production of sweets and desserts"

with the intention of singling out cake batter for this process, as opposed to say cookie batter. The sentence as written looks wrong.
posted by Dmenet at 10:57 AM on February 7 [20 favorites]


Professional copy editor here. Your professor is wrong. You don't put a comma between a subject and a verb, no matter how many words are contained in the subject, and that is what she is telling you to do.

ETA: That's assuming there isn't a phrase that needs a comma for some other reason, which isn't the case here.
posted by FencingGal at 10:58 AM on February 7 [55 favorites]


1) It would probably be a good idea to go ahead and give us the real sentence, just to make sure nothing has been lost in translating to your example.

2) If your academic institution has a writing center, or someone authoritative you can turn to (a writing instructor), that's your best bet; telling the professor "the internet said so" probably won't help a lot.

3) If your professor is insecure _at all_ (and it might not be obvious to you), proceed with extreme caution if you decide to pursue your point. #2 above is designed to get the prof to listen to you, but making the prof feel embarrassed could lead to them really not liking you -- in a way that they almost can't control -- and that could lead to bad consequences.
posted by amtho at 11:00 AM on February 7 [17 favorites]


If the professor has chosen this as their grammatical hill, it would be easier to rewrite the sentences without a gerund phrase as the subject. Your professor is wrong, but has probably been wrong about it for years and is committed to this eccentricity.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:01 AM on February 7 [37 favorites]


I am a native English speaker and using a comma in that sentence seems SO off that I struggle to imagine a professor suggesting it.

1) Is the professor a native English speaker?

2) If so, can you share the actual sentence? Maybe your example isn't exactly parallel.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:01 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


In my reading your professor is 100% wrong. The phrase "Whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter" acts as the subject of the sentence. It is not a parenthetical phrase at all. You can take a parenthetical phrase out of a sentence without changing the readability. If you take this phrase out you don't have a sentence. Putting a comma after it is the equivalent of writing "Writing ability, is an important skill in academia."

On preview, agreeing with everyone else!
posted by Bresciabouvier at 11:02 AM on February 7


Since she said "parenthetical gerund phrase" and not just "gerund phrase" (which is what "Whisking eggs into a smooth mix for cake batter" is) I wonder if you two had a misunderstanding? Something like:
"John, whisking eggs into a smooth mix for cake batter, dropped the whole thing on the floor"
is a different issue.
posted by nantucket at 11:02 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


You are right. Your prof is wrong. Know this in your heart, and then write the sentence the way she wants it.
posted by bluejayway at 11:04 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


Also: if you are avoiding using the actual sentence because you don't want your professor to find it, you could use "noun" and "verb/verbing" in place of some of the actual nouns and verbs from your area of study.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:06 AM on February 7


There are some languages where this is a thing. There have also been places and times that have seen post-subject commas be a thing in English. It's not currently a thing in American English, and hasn't been for a long time. As far as I can tell the same is true with respect to British English.

(Agreed with nantucket that actual parenthetical commas are something else.)
posted by trig at 11:06 AM on February 7


Holy shit yes, that is exactly what I said. Commas shouldn't go between a subject and a verb. She got a little annoyed at me and then I got overwhelmed with the grammar terminology she was using to tell me how wrong I was.

Okay, the sentence is:

"Distilling complex research findings into succinct and informative documents for decision-makers is a key skill in policy analysis. "

She wants a comma between "makers" and "is".

The Professor is a native English speaker. She asked us to use gerund phrases for the sake of variety. She is also very proud of her writing skills so I am not sure I will push the subject but it would not be the first time she gave us tips that were a little off. Writing that sentence will be painful. I think I might rephrase it with a shorter subject to avoid having to use the comma.
posted by Tarumba at 11:07 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Ok regarding your follow-up:
Putting commas between subjects and verbs, is just wrong. XXX
And I don't think it's a parenthetical phrase.
Doing it your way, of course, is correct.
posted by nantucket at 11:09 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


If it were me I’d just switch the sentence around so that you’re not doing something incorrect but not insisting on having your own way either.
posted by bleep at 11:12 AM on February 7 [10 favorites]


I would rewrite it as "a key skill in policy analysis is the distillation of complex research findings into succinct and informative documents for decision-makers."
on preview: what bleep said
posted by Lanark at 11:13 AM on February 7 [23 favorites]


Another professional copy editor weighing in here. She is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There's just no wiggle room here. She's wrong.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:13 AM on February 7 [21 favorites]


Nope, she's wrong.

Could you tell her that Word says the comma is incorrect? Because it does. I just checked.
posted by cooker girl at 11:14 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


She's probably thinking of sentences with the subject, not the verb, after the gerund phrase.
"Hurrying home from work, Bob tripped on the sidewalk."
posted by nantucket at 11:14 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


The comma is a desperate attempt to compensate for a subject so long that the reader almost gives up on the way to the verb. And only to get such a lame verb!

Maybe "Policy analysts must know how to distill complex research findings...." ??
posted by floppyroofing at 11:18 AM on February 7 [10 favorites]


I am a serial abuser of commas, and I use way more commas than are ever necessary in a sentence and even I wouldn't put a comma in that sentence. I might want to, because I feel like it's a bit easier to parse when a long subject like that is separated out, but I wouldn't -- at least not in formal writing.

If the phrase was truly parenthetic, as she claims, the sentence would be a complete sentence even without it. But "is a key skill in policy analysis" is not a complete sentence. That might be the way to approach it with her. Except, you know, nicer.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:26 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


By the way, a search for "comma between subject and verb" found me some good references, my favorite being this blog entry from Stan Carey, complete with lots of good historical examples.
posted by floppyroofing at 11:29 AM on February 7


I'd flip the sentence anyway and start with "A key skill in policy analytics is...." since you're really talking about the skill being key, and then providing an instance of that skill.
posted by rich at 11:32 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


She is wrongity-wrong-o, and her being so insistent upon it (as opposed to its being a minor quirk) would make me question her credibility elsewhere.
posted by praemunire at 11:42 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


flopyroofing, that was a great read!

From your link (emphasis mine):

Here’s an example from Sally Rooney’s excellent novel Conversations with Friends, presumably added because of the length and complexity of the grammatical subject:

"I had called her jealous to try and hurt her. I just hadn’t known that it had actually worked, or that it was even possible to hurt her no matter how hard I tried. Realising not only that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power but that I had done it practically offhandedly and without noticing, made me uncomfortable".


I guess it might be a thing, after all! Although not as common as my Prof. indicated.
posted by Tarumba at 11:45 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I think I might rephrase it with a shorter subject to avoid having to use the comma.

Yeah, do this. I'm an editor. My writers also have to get their work reviewed by non-editors who sometimes think they're editors, and who sometimes get indignant about really asinine points of made-up grammar. "Rephrase to avoid the issue" is a piece of advice I give constantly. In my experience there's no amount of expert advice that will make a person back down from this kind of well-this-is-what-looks-right-to-me position. Don't try to clear the roadblock, just drive around it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:56 AM on February 7 [20 favorites]


I am a native English speaker who has worked as an editor & proofreader of technical books and training materials, as well as a layout (hot-wax-and-paper!) guy and a digital prepress tech and a web lackey whose only real joy was calling out the mistakes of others.

I have seen that pattern more often lately, and it perplexes me. I agree with bleep, above: it feels as though the professor was taught that this is an actual rule of grammar, but it's not. It may be a useful analogy, but like all analogies it breaks down eventually.

You're right, they are wrong. I look to judo for the solution in times like these, and simply side-step the open conflict by choosing a different phrasing. Perhaps you could instead structure the same thought as, "A key skill in policy analysis distilling complex research findings into succinct and informative documents for decision-makers."
posted by wenestvedt at 11:58 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


If there isn't also a comma after power in your example, it's also wrong.

That said, grammar evolves as language changes; it's not fixed, and in a few years the comma splice will probably become tacitly acceptable in standard written English.

Still, your professor seems egregiously wrong to me.
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:00 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear (and tapir-whorf may not be saying this), this isn't a comma splice. A comma splice uses a comma to link two independent clauses.

John whisked eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter, this was a key skill in his production of sweets and desserts.

And yeah, the example from Sally Rooney’s novel is wrong.
posted by FencingGal at 12:06 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Since I'm actually a professional copy editor who mostly works in fiction, I want to add that you shouldn't be looking much for examples for or against in fiction. Fiction copy editing relies heavily on character, tone, voice & authorial intention -- which may, many times, supercede grammar.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:10 PM on February 7 [15 favorites]


What? No. That comma is terrible and awful.
posted by East14thTaco at 12:41 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Realising not only that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power but that I had done it practically offhandedly and without noticing, made me uncomfortable.
I actually think this should have been written as: Realising not only that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power, but that I had done it practically offhandedly and without noticing, made me uncomfortable. With the comma between "power" and "but."
posted by kdar at 12:47 PM on February 7 [8 favorites]


Hello, I have a PhD in English and taught composition for six years. You are right and your professor is wrong.
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:52 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I overuse commas, and I think that comma is terrible.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 2:51 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Your professor is WRONG and that example is also WRONG. kdar, above, has a correct edit for it. You are 100% in the right here.
posted by augustimagination at 2:56 PM on February 7


Thank you, everyone!

I will rewrite the goddamn sentence (overly complicated sentences in general are something I struggle with, so thanks for pointing that out!).

What irks me is that she made us rewrite to include gerund phrase starts (among other specific requirements), so we all ended up with weirdly stilted texts. After reading mine, she made a PSA telling us that this is an error she has seen in all of our papers. So she wants every student in class to have that sentence structure and potentially a comma before the verb, if the subject is long. This is a graduate level class, mind you.

Anyway, I will rewrite that particular sentence but if it comes up again I don't plan to add that hideous comma.
posted by Tarumba at 3:31 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Do you want to be right or do you want the grade?
In my professional life I've been a public school teacher and a newspaper assistant editor.
There is an agenda here. You are willing to learn, and she's drawing a line in the sand and daring her students to cross it. Relax, don't fight it. Just do it her way and move on.
I caution against following her example in any other class.
This will be a story you tell to people later with a wry shake of the head.

"Whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter is a key skill in the production of sweets and desserts." is correct.
"A key skill in the production of sweets and desserts is whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter." is correct.
"Whisking eggs is a key skill in the production of sweets and desserts. Rapidly beating eggs into a uniform consistency will result in a cake batter that is light and smooth, with a superior texture and flavor." is correct.
posted by TrishaU at 4:19 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Tarumba: After reading mine, she made a PSA telling us that this is an error she has seen in all of our papers.

The one element common to all those errors is the professor, who required them of the students.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:08 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I am a copy editor of academic texts and not only is your professor wrong, but I pity their copy editor because you can’t just find all/replace all with something like that.
posted by coppermoss at 8:04 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


My background : native British English speaker, not a copy-editor, but a professional in a technical job requiring clearly understandable written communication.

I can see the problem with the very-long subject : unbroken, it's just not an easy sentence to read. If I were writing that sentence, I would probably put that comma in - even though I know it's not approved of by those who adhere to strict rules of written composition - because it does help alleviate the sentence's problem. However, I would also think about rewriting the sentence to avoid that problem in the first place, as several others have suggested.

To be honest, I'm happy to ignore formal standards of written English where - in context - I can write more clearly in a different way. Headline-grammar : yes, sometimes. Grocer's apostrophes? yes, sometimes. Absolutist prescriptive rules on language usage tend to be unhelpful, I've found over time.
posted by vincebowdren at 2:22 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Requiring you to start sentences with gerund phrases, is a recipe for confusing sentences.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:01 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]


Another professional chiming in to say that your professor's edit is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I don't envy you trying to tell your professor this, but I will point out that if you put your sentence into Grammarly with that comma, it reports as an error.
posted by desuetude at 7:51 AM on February 8


Agree with the takes that it's wrong, but also that this may not be the hill for you to die on.

As to what the professor might be thinking, there's this:

"Whisking eggs into a homogeneous and smooth mix for cake batter, Bob showed his mastery of a key skill in the production of sweets and desserts." (present participle phrase).

And I offer this as, it's fair to say, a lover of commas.
posted by alittleknowledge at 2:57 PM on February 8


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