Hello

Does anyone know where a comma should go in the following sentence?
Sentence: I walked to school and when I got there I saw a big cat.

Examples:

1. I walked to school, and when I got there, I saw a big cat.
2. I walked to school, and, when I got there, I saw a big cat.
3. I walked to school, and when I got there I saw a big cat.

Which are correct and why?

Last edited by David, Moderator
Original Post

Hello SadPerson,

Interesting question. To me all three sentences are correct because commas are sometimes a matter of style and of what time you want (your readers) to breathe, especially when this is a narrative where you might want to create a dramatic sense of rhythm.

I might not prefer 3 for my students though. I teach them when we start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction like “when”, there should be a comma after the subordinate clause. But I guess this is a rule you might break upon graduation, like many others haha.

(I’m not a native English speaker but would like to try to share my opinions as a teacher of English in Hong Kong.)

@SadPerson posted:

Does anyone know where a comma should go in the following sentence?
Sentence: I walked to school and when I got there I saw a big cat.

Examples:

1. I walked to school, and when I got there, I saw a big cat.
2. I walked to school, and, when I got there, I saw a big cat.
3. I walked to school, and when I got there I saw a big cat.

Which are correct and why?

Hello, SadPerson. May the Grammar Exchange cheer you up.

I agree with Kinto that all three versions are OK, and that (3) is the least advisable from a pedagogical standpoint. Version (1) is the one that most writers would use today in my experience.

Version (2) is the most conservative; it uses a comma in all the places it a comma is warranted. But the shortness of the clauses makes (2) rather heavy-handed. The punctuation in (2) would make more sense in a sentence like this:

  • I walked to school along the bike path that goes through the woods, and, when I finally got there and parked my bike in the bicycle rack, I saw a black cat climbing a large oak tree.

Given the shortness of the clauses in your examples, I recommend a different approach from the three you've presented. You can simply use two commas to set off the subordinate clause in the second independent clause:

(4) I walked to school and, when I got there, I saw a big cat.

If it bothers you that the coordinating conjunction introducing the second independent clause is not preceded by a comma, you can simply delete the subject of the second independent clause and have a compound verb phrase:

(5) I walked to school and, when I got there, saw a big cat.
(6) I walked to school and, on arrival, saw a big cat.

Thank you for the responses. Does that mean that the comma placements doesn't affect how the clause is treated?

Initially, I thought that the commas in the second example functioned like parentheses: the second example is akin to 'I walked to school, and (when I arrived) I saw a big cat'. The subordinate clause could be removed, yet the meaning of the sentence would still be understood; it is just unnecessary, additional information. In my opinion, it positions the reader to read a clause that is enclosed by commas more quickly and with less emphasis compared to the independent clauses. 

Conversely, in the first example where there is no comma preceding the subordinate clause, the subordinate clause would be treated as imperative to the sentence. For example, I read somewhere that writing a sentence like 'the Captain, Jane, entered the room' is different to 'the Captain Jane entered the room'. The former suggests that Jane is known to be captain; hence, there it is acceptable to enclose 'Jane' with commas as it is unnecessary informarion. The latter suggests that people may not be aware that Jane is the captain, so it is necessary information and should not be enclosed in commas. 

Regarding the third example, I have always thought it to be wrong until I saw it in a book. This sparked the question where the comma should be placed if any.  

Are my thoughts wrong? 

@SadPerson posted:

Does that mean that the comma placements doesn't affect how the clause is treated?

Hi, SadPerson—The placement of commas does not affect how the sentence should be analyzed in terms of its clausal constituents. If you are worried about whether its status as a compound-complex sentence is affected by the placement of commas, it isn't. It would be a compound-complex sentence even if it were punctuated without any commas:

  • I walked to school and when I got there I saw a big cat.

How to punctuate that sentence depends on how you think such sentences should be punctuated. If you believe an independent clause following a coordinating conjunction should be set off from another by a comma, regardless of the length of the clause, you will place a comma after "school."

If you believe that a pre-placed subordinate clause within a coordinated independent clause should be set off with a comma only before the matrix clause of that independent clause, you will place a comma after "there." If you believe the subordinate clause should be set off with a comma at both ends in that circumstance, you will use a comma after "and" as well.

@SadPerson posted:

Initially, I thought that the commas in the second example functioned like parentheses: the second example is akin to 'I walked to school, and (when I arrived) I saw a big cat'. The subordinate clause could be removed, yet the meaning of the sentence would still be understood; it is just unnecessary, additional information. In my opinion, it positions the reader to read a clause that is enclosed by commas more quickly and with less emphasis compared to the independent clauses.

"When I arrived" is not a parenthetical element. The sentence means the same thing as the following:

  • I walked to school, and I saw a big cat when I got there.

The use of a second independent clause is unnecessary, since the first is so short and the subject of the two clauses is identical. A compound verb phrase can be used instead. The following sentence means the same thing:

  • I walked to school and saw a big cat when I got there.
@SadPerson posted:
Conversely, in the first example where there is no comma preceding the subordinate clause, the subordinate clause would be treated as imperative to the sentence. For example, I read somewhere that writing a sentence like 'the Captain, Jane, entered the room' is different to 'the Captain Jane entered the room'. The former suggests that Jane is known to be captain; hence, there it is acceptable to enclose 'Jane' with commas as it is unnecessary informarion. The latter suggests that people may not be aware that Jane is the captain, so it is necessary information and should not be enclosed in commas. 

Your understanding of restrictive versus nonrestrictive appositives is accurate enough; however, subordinate clauses do not work like appositives, so there is really no relationship between your example concerning the captain and the sentences you asked about in your opening post.

@SadPerson posted:
Regarding the third example, I have always thought it to be wrong until I saw it in a book. This sparked the question where the comma should be placed if any.  


Are my thoughts wrong? 

It is generally considered incorrect not to use a comma following a dependent clause that introduces an independent clause. However, that does not mean that one should go and accuse master writers of the past of having used incorrect punctuation where they did not follow that rule. Punctuation is a matter of stylistic convention. What constitutes an independent and a dependent clause, by contrast, is not a matter of stylistic convention but of grammar proper.

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