Hi!  I have a question about the presence/absence of a comma.  Some type of intransitive verb may be followed by a present participle.  In that case, I think a comma may or may not appear in front of the participle.  I made up the following pair.

 

(1) He sat at the table, reading the paper.

(2) He sat at the table reading the paper.

 

I am wondering about this kind of pair.  Would you think the comma there is grammatically optional?  Is there any semantic difference between sentences like (1) and (2)? 

 

I am also wondering whether there are any cases in which a comma must or must not appear.  For example, unlike (1) and (2) above, how about if the intransitive verb is directly followed by a present participle, or if the participle phrase is much longer with adverbial modifiers, etc?

 

I would appreciate your comments.  Thank you!

 

 

Original Post

Hi, Yasukotta,

yasukotta posted:

 

(1) He sat at the table, reading the paper.

(2) He sat at the table reading the paper.

I just want to show my opinion about those two sentences. If I were to write one of those two, I would choose (1).  I see that the comma is necessary here, because the participle phrase modifies the subject of the main clause. 

Hi,

I agree with Ahmed that the comma is fine if "sit" means "be sitting down." However, if "sit" means "sit down" (get into a sitting position), I think the comma could be eliminated to mean that the man sat down without taking his eyes off the paper (he sat while reading the paper).

Thank you so much, Ahmed and Gustavo!  So, it depends on the meaning of the verb "sit."  If it means the state of being seated, the comma may appear (but not obligatorily?) and if it means the ongoing action of sitting, the comma may be eliminated (but may apprear?).  Is my understanding correct?

 

I was also wondering about the following sentences:

 

(3) He sat, reading the paper.

(4) He sat reading the paper.

(5) He sat alone quietly at the table in that room, reading the paper.

(6) He sat alone quietly at the table in that room reading the paper.

 

In the sentences (3) and (4), the verb has no adverbial phrase while in the sentences (5) and (6), it has multiple modifiers.  I guess the semantic explanation mentioned above would apply to these sentences, but would you think the structural complexity of the verb phrase may also affect the persence/absence of a comma?

yasukotta posted:

So, it depends on the meaning of the verb "sit."  If it means the state of being seated, the comma may appear (but not obligatorily?) and if it means the ongoing action of sitting, the comma may be eliminated (but may apprear?).  Is my understanding correct?

In my opinion, that's correct.

yasukotta posted:

(3) He sat, reading the paper.

(4) He sat reading the paper.

(5) He sat alone quietly at the table in that room, reading the paper.

(6) He sat alone quietly at the table in that room reading the paper.

In the sentences (3) and (4), the verb has no adverbial phrase while in the sentences (5) and (6), it has multiple modifiers.  I guess the semantic explanation mentioned above would apply to these sentences, but would you think the structural complexity of the verb phrase may also affect the persence/absence of a comma?

"reading the paper" is a participial phrase that expresses an action performed by the subject.

Those components within the predicate are complements and adjuncts, not modifiers, and when so numerous they make the sentence awkward. Commas might help to reduce the awkwardness.

Gustavo, Contributor posted:

I agree with Ahmed that the comma is fine if "sit" means "be sitting down." However, if "sit" means "sit down" (get into a sitting position), I think the comma could be eliminated to mean that the man sat down without taking his eyes off the paper (he sat while reading the paper).

Hi, everyone—While I agree that a comma may be used in such sentences, it is by no means normal for a comma to be used in them, and I think they are quite fine without the comma if there is no real danger of the present-participial phrase being interpreted as a reduced relative clause modifying the adjacent noun.

This type of clause is rather like one that Robby zhu asked about somewhat recently (e.g., "He is across the street buying a newspaper," "He is in the bathroom taking a shower," etc.), except that, in this case, instead of be, the main verb is sit. The construction commonly occurs with stand and lie as well.

The prepositional phrase in this construction can generally be replaced by there:

He sat there reading the newspaper.
He sat at the table reading the newspaper.

He sat there drinking his coffee.
He sat in the living room drinking his coffee.

He lay there daydreaming for hours.
He lay on the couch daydreaming for hours.

He stood there tapping his foot.
He stood in the street tapping his foot.

Just as it would be abnormal, and do nothing to change the basic meaning, to use a comma in the Robby zhu construction ("He is under the bridge eating a sandwich" / "He is under the bridge, eating a sandwich"), it would likewise be abnormal and do nothing to change the basic meaning in this construction.

Of course, we can try to invent cases that make the comma less abnormal or which even make it desirable, whether from the sheer length of the verb phrase or for the sake of preventing the participial phrase from being misinterpreted as a postmodifier of the adjacent noun; but that doesn't mean it's always needed.

He stood there tapping his foot.
He stood where he was tapping his foot.
He stood where he was, tapping his foot.

In the second and third sentences above, the comma is desirable because it marks a phrasal boundary between the free relative clause and the participial phrase. Without the comma (see the red sentence), there is the risk of the "was tapping his foot" being interpreted as a verb phrase in the past progressive.

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