Saturday, July 27, 2019

poor comma usage

Very soon, I'm going to do a post about how to use commas, but for the moment, let's look at the following sentence, which I found over at Instapundit:

The standing ovation Ansari gets at the beginning of his show, and the hearty reaction to his anti-woke new material, are heartening.

The verb "are" in the predicate "are heartening" is ungrammatical. I can see why the writer wanted to use "are," though: the writer was thinking his sentence contained a compound subject. Compound subjects, taken as a whole, are grammatically plural. Some examples:

• Bill and Ted have an adventure inside an elephant's colon. (not has)
• Fuchsia and Mauve are what I named my testicles. (not is)
• Karate and eating pussy are essential skills for survival in the woods. (not is)

Basically, with a compound subject, two subjects joined with the coordinating conjunction "and" together form a plural subject, and this must be reflected in the verb.

But what happens when you take the second part of a compound subject and wall it off with commas? What you've created, at that point, is a parenthetical expression (which can also be walled off by em dashes [ — ]). A parenthetical expression is NOT part of a compound subject, so the verb needs to reflect the singular:

• "Silence—and obedience, too—is golden," said the child molester. (not are)
• His fart, and the horrified silence that followed it, was pleasing to Gerald. (not were)

See how that works? It's tempting to treat a subject + parenthetical like a compound subject, but it isn't one. To remedy that, either remove the commas or change the form of your verb. You might risk creating a run-on if you take out the commas, but that's preferable to being outright ungrammatical.* So: two solutions to the first sentence quoted above:

1. The standing ovation Ansari gets at the beginning of his show and the hearty reaction to his anti-woke new material are heartening. [remove commas]

2. The standing ovation Ansari gets at the beginning of his show, and the hearty reaction to his anti-woke new material, is heartening. [change "are" to "is"]

One "exception" that's not really an exception is when your compound subject involves a list of three or more nouns and/or noun phrases. In that case, commas are permissible.

• Sleepy, Bashful, and Grumpy have all had their way with Snow White.
• Sloth, Greed, and Lust are what she named her three boobs.
• Six cats with leprosy, two one-eyed horses, and a syphilitic gecko all walk into a bar.

[That last sentence shows common nouns embedded in noun phrases.]

Hope this helps.

*I don't think run-on sentences are perforce ungrammatical. Mostly, they're just overlong.


  1. Looking forward to the comma usage post. I'm sure there are many bad examples over at LTG if you need some...

  2. Never has grammar been explained with such disgusto, but what do you want, good grammar or good taste?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  3. John,

    Heh. I may borrow some choicer sentences from your blog.


    Down with good taste!



All comments are subject to approval before they are published, so they will not appear immediately. Comments should be civil, relevant, and substantive. Anonymous comments are not allowed and will be unceremoniously deleted. For more on my comments policy, please see this entry on my other blog.

AND A NEW RULE (per this post): comments critical of Trump's lying must include criticism of Biden's lying on a one-for-one basis! Failure to be balanced means your comment will not be published.