Don’t Cut Off a Verb From Its Subject

Another comma tip

When a subject is followed by two verbs, don’t unnecessarily separate the subject from the second verb by inserting a comma before a joining word like and, but, or or. The shorter, more technical way to say that is don’t split a compound predicate.

Wrong: He broke her heart, and fractured his nose.

Right: He broke her heart and fractured his nose.

The subject, he, did two things: 1) broke her heart and 2) fractured his nose. The two create a compound predicate. Whether the two actions relate to each other is unclear . . . but structurally they share the subject, so you might say they need equal access to it: no comma.

Confusing two rules

This common mistake may stem from mismanaging another comma rule: Place a comma before a conjunction that joins two independent clauses (see my December 2009 post). I suspect that some people have a vague notion of this rule, and they automatically insert a comma before any and, but, or or that shows up in the middle of a sentence (but particularly before and). The key phrase, however, is “two independent clauses,” each with its own subject. For example:

Wrong: He broke her heart and she fractured his nose.

Right: He broke her heart, and she fractured his nose.

Wrong: Valentine’s Day has devolved into a Hallmark holiday and she refuses to observe it.

Right: Valentine’s Day has devolved into a Hallmark holiday, and she refuses to observe it.

Back to the tip at hand. Here’s a sentence similar in meaning to that above but written with a compound predicate:

Wrong: She says Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday, and refuses to observe it.

Right: She says Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday and refuses to observe it.

In this case, the subject of the first part of the sentence, she, is also the subject of the second part. She 1) says and 2) refuses. Again, you have a compound predicate. “Refuses to observe it” is no longer an independent clause. No comma.

Long sentences tempt bad punctuation

The farther away the second verb is from its subject, the more tempted you may become to stick in a comma.

Wrong: Buying discounted roses after Valentine’s Day saves money, and does not count as observing the Hallmark holiday.

Right: Buying discounted roses after Valentine’s Day saves money and does not count as observing the Hallmark holiday.

The phrase “buying discounted roses after Valentine’s Day” is the subject of both parts of the predicate. Buying discounted roses 1) saves money and 2) does not count.

Two sentences may be in order

Sometimes the second part of the predicate gets so far away from the subject that, even if you know better, you’re dying to put a comma in there just to give your reader a break. The sympathetic impulse is a step in the right direction. But consider channelling it toward rewriting your sentence. If the sentence is that long, perhaps it should be two.

Wrong: She fractured his nose after he broke up with her quite unexpectedly just a week after the unobserved Hallmark holiday, but soon learned he’d done it preemptively after accidentally crushing her cat with his Smart car.

Right, but even more exhausting: She fractured his nose after he broke up with her quite unexpectedly just a week after the unobserved Hallmark holiday but soon learned he had done it preemptively after accidentally crushing her cat with his Smart car.

Better: She fractured his nose after he unexpectedly broke up with her just a week after the unobserved Hallmark holiday, but she soon learned he had done it preemptively after accidentally crushing her cat with his Smart car.

By at least inserting she, thereby turning the second part of the sentence into an independent clause, you’re helping the reader keep track of the fact that the subject is still the subject.

Better still: She fractured his nose after he unexpectedly broke up with her just a week after the unobserved Hallmark holiday. However, she soon learned he had done it preemptively after accidentally crushing her cat with his Smart car.

Don’t let an intervening phrase that requires commas confuse you. Below, the subject it can 1) crush and 2) break.

Wrong: A Smart car is small, but it can still crush a cat, and by extension, break a heart and a nose.

Right: A Smart car is small, but it can still crush a cat and, by extension, break a heart and a nose.

That extra comma may look harmless …

Many times, the misplaced comma is merely superfluous and does no harm beyond cluttering up your sentence. But it’s a false signal and could cause confusion.

This sentence is simple enough to be clear despite the misplaced comma:

He taped his nose, and called the doctor.

If things get more complicated, you might have a problem:

She told them that he had taped his nose, and called the doctor.

As we reviewed earlier, a comma before a conjunction can signal that an independent clause is next. So here, it suggests that she, rather than he, is the subject of called. So the reader may well think she told them about the nose and called the doctor herself.

The inevitable exceptions

This rule (or any other) should be suspended when clarity demands. Sometimes a comma does serve a function in a compound predicate. As always, be alert for potential misreads.

Not so good: He grabbed his nose as it swelled and fell to the ground.

Better: He grabbed his nose as it swelled, and fell to the ground.

Alternatively: He grabbed his nose as it swelled, and he fell to the ground.

Presumably, his nose didn’t fall to the ground. He did. In the second sentence, the comma separates fell from “it swelled” and helps to signal that fell relates to he, not to nose. Still worried about clarity? Opt for two independent clauses, as the third sentence illustrates.

No comma with compound conjunctions, either

This is a good time to make note of another kind of compound and its comma requirements: the compound conjunction. Examples are such as and such that. Again, don’t let a comma come between the two parts, no matter how far away from each other they get. Sometimes it’s best to keep the parts of the compound conjunction together.

Wrong: Such was the angle of the sun, that she did not see the tiny car when she pulled into the driveway with her Suburban.

Right: Such was the angle of the sun that she did not see the tiny car when she pulled into the driveway with her Suburban.

Alternatively: The angle of the sun was such that she did not see the tiny car when she pulled into the driveway with her Suburban.

Wrong: Such was his delight in the conciliatory gesture of a Suburban full of discount roses, that he forgot about the nose, and hardly mourned the crushed Smart car.

Right: Such was his delight in the conciliatory gesture of a Suburban full of discount roses that he forgot about the nose and hardly mourned the crushed Smart car.

Alternatively: His delight in the conciliatory gesture of a Suburban full of discount roses was such that he forgot about the nose and hardly mourned the crushed Smart car.

The end.