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Here's a situation I run into regularly as a freelance editor. Writers always want to use commas to offset material following an attribution, regardless of whether the following material is a phrase or clause:

"That's what I thought," he said, without looking up from his book.

The only thing that makes me hesitate to delete the comma is that we do tend to pause here in speech; if I were to read this sentence out loud, with or without the comma, I would insert a pause between "said" and "without." Is that enough grounds for leaving the comma as it is?

Thanks for any advice!

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Hi, iankms,

@iankms posted:

"That's what I thought," he said, without looking up from his book.

I think the comma is optional in this case.

My view is that the comma can be eliminated if the V-ing that follows defines the way how the main action is performed, and will tend to be used if the V-ing expresses a simultaneous action which is not directly related to the main verb. Thus, he said trembling could be interpreted as he stammered, while he said, trembling could be interpreted as: He trembled as he said it.

Note: There has to be a better example than "he said trembling," which I don't like very much, to be honest.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator
@Gustavo, Co-Moderator posted:

My view is that the comma can be eliminated if the V-ing that follows defines the way how the main action is performed, and will tend to be used if the V-ing expresses a simultaneous action which is not directly related to the main verb.

I agree with you, Gustavo. While, in ianskms's (try to say "ianskms's" three times fast!) example, the comma before "without" is clearly needed, since the "without" phrase adds but an incidental detail about what he didn't do when he said what he said, it is possible to imagine cases where a comma is undesirable—e.g.:

"It doesn't matter," he said without thinking.
= "It doesn't matter," he said unthinkingly.

This is an interesting line of thought. I wonder, though -- do we always add a comma when the following phrase is deemed "incidental"? What's the difference between

"That's what I thought," he said without looking up from his book.

and

He picked up his cup without looking up from his book.

Does the "he said" construction have such an unusual relationship to the rest of the sentence that it demands a pair of commas more often than other clauses would?

@iankms posted:

This is an interesting line of thought. I wonder, though -- do we always add a comma when the following phrase is deemed "incidental"? What's the difference between

"That's what I thought," he said without looking up from his book.

and

He picked up his cup without looking up from his book.

Does the "he said" construction have such an unusual relationship to the rest of the sentence that it demands a pair of commas more often than other clauses would?

Yes, it is standard practice to add a comma to set off phrases containing incidental information. Whether the "without"-phrase is incidental in your coffee-cup example will depend on the context.

If you're just adding an incidental detail, the "without"-phrase should be set off by a comma. However, if that detail is important to the message of the sentence, then it is not incidental and should not be set off by a comma.

  • He was so focused that he picked up his cup of coffee and took a sip without even looking up from his book.
Last edited by David, Moderator

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