Commas at the Beginning

rogersgeorge on December 26th, 2017

You might find this post boring. It’s a straight-out grammar lesson.

Here are the rules:

  • Separate interjections (such as “However, …”) and direct address (someone’s name or title) from the sentence with a comma.
  • Separate an introductory clause from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
  • Separate an introductory prepositional phrase from the rest of the sentence if it contains five or more words.
  • Some common shorter prepositional phrases, such as “for example,” get the comma, too. This rule is flexible. If you have a short prepositional phrase, and it feels as if it needs a comma, go for it.

Okay, take a look at this:

However, the Coppersmith’s algorithm allows quite a lot of flexibility. Tom, you can’t do that!

Easy enough. Now how about this one:

To speed up the prime number generation, smart card manufacturers implement various optimisations.

(British spelling. Ignore that). The sentence starts with “to.” Prepositional phrase, right? Well, no. It’s actually an infinitive. Infinitives are verbs. If it has a verb, it’s a clause. So I could rewrite this as:

To speed things up, smart card manufacturers implement various optimisations.

Fewer than five words, still gets the comma. If fact, look at a sentence I just wrote:

If it has a verb, it’s a clause.

“Has” is a verb, so you have a clause. A lot of introductory clauses start with words like “if” and “when.” We call them introductory adverbs. In fact, if you got rid of that introductory adverb, you’d have a complete sentence, which requires a period, not a comma. If you write:

It has a verb, it’s a clause.

Get rid of that comma! Use a period! Two independent sentences separated by a comma is called a comma splice, and that’s a no-no.

Sorry—it’s pretty hard to find a comic about commas.

PS—Wouldn’t you know! I ran into one at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

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The subjunctive

rogersgeorge on March 4th, 2014

English verbs can exhibit a feature called mood. Moods have to do with the the reality of what you’re speaking (or writing) about. That might not be a very useful definition, but you no doubt recognize the names of the moods from grade school. You use the indicative when you’re asserting something to be true. You use the interrogative to ask a question.  The imperative is for when you give a command. And the subjunctive is for when something is not real. In English, most verbs don’t have a separate form for the subjunctive; you have to figure it out from the context.

However, the verb to be does have a subjunctive form. It’s were. Now that looks like the past tense form, so you still need some context. The context you need is some way to say that the situation is not real. For example, if you were to start a sentence with If, you should use the subjunctive.

If I were in better shape, I could swim farther. But I’m not, so I can’t.

The normal past tense (indicative) is I was. I need the subjunctive because I’m not actually in good enough shape. Could, by the way, is a modal auxiliary, and I don’t want to get into those in this post, but note that you have to write could instead of can because you’re using the subjunctive. This is intuitive for native speakers of English. People generally get the could-can dichotomy right, but people fairly commonly get the main verb wrong, saying “If I was in better shape..”

Another contextual indication of the subjunctive is to express a wish, and that leads us to today’s comic grammar lesson, and a reminder that we parents should always tell our kids the truth, from Zach Weiner’s excellent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: