Simple grammar question that has baffled me
June 9, 2024 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm confused about the grammar in a quote from a book. It's from Dune, and it's printed as "That which submits rules." Now, to my eyes, it looks like there should be a comma there: "That which submits, rules." What grammar principles apply in this situation? Where can I find an explanation of them? Or can you explain what's going on?

When I put those sentences into online grammar checkers they both come back as correct. I would like an explanation for which one is "more correct," if the difference causes a shift in meaning, or just what is happening here. I don't know the words for the grammatical principles so I can't google for it. Any help is appreciated!
posted by 100kb to Writing & Language (23 answers total)
My credentials on this are that I am both an English teacher and I read a lot.

That sentence as written didn’t make sense to me at first. When I figured out it meant “that which submits, rules” I also wanted a comma in it to clarify the relationship between the two verbs, submits and rules.

Without the comma, you can read rules as an object: something or someone is submitting rules. I’m pretty sure that’s how my brain tried to read it the first time, and then it felt incomplete like, “that which submits rules“ then goes on to do something else. Like an equivalent would be something like, “a person who eats bread.” You need to hear what that person does: “a person who eats bread likes butter.” Without the comma, the sentence reads like a noun phrase that is the subject of a sentence (I say phrase, but it’s actually a clause because it has a verb in it, but we don’t need to get that technical. I don’t think. And I’m not sure I could get that technical and not make mistakes.

Frank Herbert can of course do anything he wants in his own writing. But I think the comma disambiguates that sentence nobody’s gonna stumble over it if it has a comma in it. Therefore, I’m very much on the side of including The comma precisely so that attentive readers like you don’t get sidetracked from the story by wondering what’s going on in that sentence.
posted by Well I never at 9:23 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Devoid of context, I read the two differently. Without the comma, I parse it was "the thing which submits rules [to something]", i.e. as an adjectival phrase, with 'rules' being a noun. With the comma, I parse 'rules' as a verb.
posted by hoyland at 9:23 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]

In general commas are used to separate clauses. When reading aloud we often interpret them as a pause, but that has nothing to do with their grammatical usage.

In this sentence a verbal pause would be appropriate, but in writing the comma is not required.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:24 AM on June 9 [13 favorites]

"That which submits" is the subject, and "rules" is the verb. You can't put a comma between the subject and the verb.

The prose in Dune frequently annoyed me the point where I was flipping my Kindle around, but it's not wrong.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:24 AM on June 9 [14 favorites]

The sentence is grammatically correct with our without a comma, but it has a different meaning in each case.

Without a comma it means, "the thing that proposes regulations." Its a noun phrase, not a complete sentence.

With the comma it means, "the person who humbles themself to circumstance will be victorious." This is a complete sentence.

I believe Herbert meant the latter meaning, but he left out the comma. It was an editing oversight. Happens to the best of them.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:29 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

In "That, which submits" the comma renders this into an unrestrictive clause, indicating optional information. But the "which submits" is required information, it identifies the specific "that" being discussed in the sentence. So it's a restrictive clause and cannot have a comma: "That which submits."

[But the discussion reminds me of a throwaway line somewhere in a Joe Frank monologue: "I hate people who say 'that which'." I guess because you can usually use one or the other? But that's not true here, where both are needed.]
posted by Rash at 9:31 AM on June 9

Best answer: I'm a copy editor, and I mostly work in novel-length fiction. We could discuss grammar all day, but in my work I strive to make the reading easy on the reader. One part of this is preventing situations which would lead to "overreading"—colloquially that means "having to go back and read the sentence again to make sense of it."

I would absolutely add that comma.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:43 AM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, the rest of the quote is: "That which submits rules. The willow submits to the wind and prospers until one day it is many willows - a wall against the wind. This is the willow's purpose."

Thanks for all of the explanations so far!
posted by 100kb at 9:57 AM on June 9

Best answer: The argument for no comma is that normally there is not a comma between the subject and the verb in a sentence. It's "Joe runs" or "That rules" or "The king rules," not "Joe, runs" or "That, rules" or "The king, rules." The versions with the comma are clearly wrong and confusing. If you make the subject a little more complicated you still would not expect a comma. "That thing on the throne rules" or "The king with the purple robe rules." "That which submits" is the subject - the equivalent of "Joe" or "That thing on the throne."

The only reason to use a comma in your example is that without it you can read the sentence two ways. "That which submits rules" sounds like it could be a phrase describing something that submits rules. A lot of people, maybe most people, would read it that way at first. When you get to the period and realize it doesn't make sense as a sentence, then you can go back and read it as saying that the thing that submits is the thing that rules. The comma prevents the first incorrect way of reading it.

You could argue that it's more correct to leave out the comma because in most situations it's absolutely wrong to separate the subject and verb with a comma. Or you could argue that it's better to use the comma because it removes ambiguity. I don't think either is objectively more correct.
posted by Redstart at 10:35 AM on June 9 [13 favorites]

Another famous adage following the same construction, “He who smelt it, dealt it,” is commonly found in the literature both with and without the comma.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:42 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

Yes, Redstart has it. The applicable term is relative clause. Here's an excerpt from the relevant article in Chicago Manual of Style:
A clause is said to be restrictive (or defining) if it provides information that is essential to understanding the intended meaning of the rest of the sentence. Restrictive relative clauses are usually introduced by that (or by who/whom/whose) and are never set off by commas from the rest of the sentence.
That rules.
What rules?
That which submits rules.
posted by lampoil at 10:46 AM on June 9

It's common in Latin proverbs and mottoes to have two consecutive verbs without a comma. Qui audet adipiscitur. Who dares wins. Omitting the comma gives it a lapidary simplicity which is appropriate for a proverb.

Paul's reaction -- 'she was talking about such elementary things as tension within meaning' -- also suggests there is a deliberate ambiguity here. To rule is to submit. To submit is to rule. Which is the cause, and which is the effect? Omitting the comma holds the two verbs in balance.
posted by verstegan at 11:14 AM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Sentences have many purposes, and maximally clear communication is only one of them.

Sometimes, you want the reader to stumble a bit, so that they spend time thinking about your profound statement. In this case, with the fuller quote, the next lines disambiguate the meaning just fine. For a reader who stumbles with the first sentence, they then pay more attention to the next sentences.

I think this is a stylistic choice, and as a descriptivist, I too agree that Frank Herbert (and all of us) can do whatever he wants while writing. Here, I think the no comma choice is more effective, although in a less weighty statement I too would choose the comma.
posted by nat at 11:37 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

Grammar aside, Dune fans will profit from reading the Greek tragedy Agamemnon by Aeschylus, the original Atreides.

The paradox of winning through losing is at the heart of an intense battle of wills between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon (around line 940). Here's an excerpt:

True, yet he who is unenvied is unenviable.
[940] Surely it is not woman's part to long for fighting.
True, but it is right for the happy victor to yield the victory.
What? is this the kind of victory in strife that you prize?
Oh yield! Yet of your own free will entrust the victory to me.

The context is powerful and chilling. If you're in the mood for a deep dive, it's great background!
posted by dum spiro spero at 12:03 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

As I get older and crustier, I tend to prefer the disambiguating usage to the hypertechnically correct one. But I wouldn't red-pencil either of them in this circumstance.
posted by praemunire at 12:48 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

The only reason there is a potential for ambiguity in this case is that rules can be either a third person present tense verb or a plural noun. In the context of the complete paragraph there is no ambiguity about which part of speech is intended.
posted by Vox Clamato at 2:16 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

On preview, well, shoot Vox Clamato. I mean, shoot, Vox Clamato.

I submit that Rash partly has it. The subject of the sentence is "that" and "which submits" is a restrictive clause. I also submit that the comma indicates an ellipsis: The meaning might more clearly be expressed as "That which submits is that which rules," in which case the comma can be thought of as permissibly signalling the elision of "is that which."

The real problem here, though, is that the word "rules" is outrageously ambiguous in this context. In this sentence, it can be read either as a verb or as a noun. Not only that, but the noun "rules" is often encountered as the subject of the verb "submit." In other circumstances, you could drop the comma without losing comprehensibility, but, I submit, not here.

As Horace remarked, "It is when I strive to be brief that I become obscure."

Side note: "That" and "which" are often, but not always, used as relative pronouns--pronouns which introduce clauses. Typically, in the word sequence "that which," "that" is used as a demonstrative pronoun (i.e., not as part of a relative clause), as the subject of a sentence or as a predicate nominative, and followed by "which" as a relative pronoun that does introduce a restrictive clause. So using "that which" is never, except possibly in some cases of the very worst freshman prose, a case of using both instead of one or the other. I respect Joe Frank as an artist, but I think he was out of line with that jibe.
posted by bricoleur at 2:44 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Benjamin Dreyer: ““I tend to visualize the action of novels, and hear it.”

This is an example of what my beloved Edmund Morris always referred to as a “luftpause comma,” a midpredicate comma that is not at all grammatically called for and yet does a little something.”

Herbert’s sentence is correct, but would have benefited from a luftpause comma.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:26 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Another famous adage following the same construction, “He who smelt it, dealt it,” is commonly found in the literature both with and without the comma.

Likewise "He who laughs last[,] laughs best."

I cite this mainly to refute that "you can't put a comma between the subject and the verb." In most situations, you absolutely can't, but language has a way of confounding absolutes.
posted by aws17576 at 11:43 PM on June 9

This is one of those things that makes my sadly innate prescriptivist personality twitch—grammatically unnecessary/“incorrect” commas are EVERYWHERE these days, and this is one. But I also understand that people want to add a comma here because it feels right.

For example, “he who laughs last laughs best” does NOT need a comma and I wouldn’t write that way because it would feel wrong to me. I vaguely remember teachers teaching the comma as something you add when you would pause while speaking, which isn’t really right from a nitpicky grammatical standpoint.

Also basically what Redstart said!
posted by throwitawayurthegarbageman at 5:15 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I cite this mainly to refute that "you can't put a comma between the subject and the verb." In most situations, you absolutely can't, but language has a way of confounding absolutes.

Bulldogs fight.

[The] Bulldogs [with whom the] bulldogs fight, [also, themselves,] fight.

[The] Bulldogs [with whom the] bulldogs [that] bulldogs [who] fight fight, [also, themselves,] fight.

Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.

(I can keep the "Buffalo" one in my head no matter how long it gets, but the Bulldogs one slides off my brain every time, commas or no.)
posted by The Bellman at 9:01 AM on June 10

Best answer: I agree with the idea that the ambiguity in punctuation here is exacerbated by the ambiguity in meaning. I think the concept of a garden path sentence is relevant (although the quote is maybe not an example, as it resolves through context and not continuation -- it's less like "the old man the boats" and more like just "the old man" but you're supposed to figure out "man" is a verb [but then that's a dubious example itself because you can't really use "man" as a verb without an object (yikes!)]).
posted by dick dale the vampire at 12:28 PM on June 10

For example, “he who laughs last laughs best” does NOT need a comma and I wouldn’t write that way because it would feel wrong to me.

The example that sprang to mind for me was “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Writing it as “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach” is obviously not preferable.
posted by ejs at 10:57 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

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