Hesitating in Front of the Door

Welcome back for the third installment of “Punctuation Saves Lives”! Last time, I introduced the use of a comma and a “FANBOY” between two complete sentences. This time, I’ll be discussing the use of a comma after an introductory phrase or dependent clause. Dependent clauses look very much like a complete sentence, but they have a signal word or words in front of them that change their function.

Example of a stand-alone complete sentence: The young man hesitated in front of the door.

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Example of a dependent clause that cannot work as a complete sentence: Although the young man hesitated in front of the door, . . . .

In the second example, we’re left waiting for the rest of the sentence. The only difference is the “although” in front of the complete sentence. Suddenly, that sentence can no longer stand alone; it becomes a dependent clause. A dependent clause needs to be hooked up with a complete sentence to function properly. However, it doesn’t have to come at the front of a sentence—it can also be placed at the end of a sentence. When a dependent clause precedes a complete sentence, a comma is used to separate the two. Let me rearrange that sentence. A comma is used to separate the two clauses when a dependent clause precedes an independent clause. Did you catch what I did there? I used a dependent clause followed by a comma and a complete sentence. Then I started with the complete sentence and added the dependent clause at the end, without a comma separating them.

Let’s look at the two examples above about the young man at the door. When you read the first example (the stand-alone sentence) the pitch of your voice should go down. Dropping our pitch at the end of a sentence is one way we indicate to our listener that the sentence is finished. If you read the second example (the dependent clause) out loud, the pitch of your voice should stay even at the end of the clause. So, if you’re having problems identifying whether a clause is dependent or not, try reading it aloud and listen for the pitch of your voice at the end of the clause. If it stays even throughout, it’s probably a dependent clause and needs to be followed by a comma and a complete sentence. If your pitch goes down, it’s probably already a complete sentence and can stand alone.

An introductory phrase works the same way as an introductory dependent clause. They both precede the main part of the sentence, and they both enhance the meaning of the complete sentence that follows, so the introductory phrase should be followed by a comma before adding the rest of the sentence. The difference between the two is that an introductory phrase doesn’t have a subject and a verb that can be seen in a dependent clause.

Examples of introductory phrases:

Entering the turn lane, I waited for the light to turn green before I proceeded.

In the early morning, the dew sits lightly on the grass.

We’ve got just one more installment of “Punctuation Save Lives,” about using commas around extra/nonrestrictive material. Here are two sentences we’ll be discussing next time. Which of these sentences is correct?

People who live in glass houses should get dressed in the basement.

OR

People, who live in glass houses, should get dressed in the basement.

Join me next time to find out if you chose the correct answer!

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