H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The
King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.
Chapter IV. Punctuation
GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION
ALTHOUGH we are, when we turn from taste to
grammar, on slightly firmer ground, it will be seen that there are many
debatable questions; and we shall have to use some technical terms. As
usual, only those points will be attended to which our observation has
shown to be important.
- The substantival clause.
Subordinate clauses are sentences containing a subject and
predicate, but serving the purpose in the main sentence (to which
they are sometimes joined by a subordinating conjunction or relative
pronoun, but sometimes without any separate and visible link) of
single words, namely, of noun, adjective, or adverb; they are called
respectively substantival, adjectival, or adverbial clauses.
Substantival. He asked what I should do. (my plan, noun)
Adjectival. The man who acts honestly is respected. (honest,
Adverbial. I shall see you when the sun next rises. (tomorrow,
Now there is no rule that subordinate clauses must be separated from
the main sentence by a stop; that depends on whether they are
essential parts of the proposition (when stops are generally wrong),
or more or less separable accidents (when commas are more or less
required). But what we wish to draw attention to is a distinction in
this respect, very generally disregarded, between the substantival
clause and the two other kinds. When the others are omitted, though
the desired meaning may be spoilt, the grammar generally remains
uninjured; a complete, though not perhaps valuable sentence is left.
The man is respected, I shall see you, are as much sentences
alone as they were with the adjectival and adverbial clauses. With
substantival clauses this is seldom true; they are usually the
subjects, objects, or complements, of the verbs, that is, are
grammatically essential. He asked is meaningless by itself.
(Even if the point is that he asked and did not answer, things,
or something, has to be supplied in thought.) Now it is a
principle, not without exceptions, but generally sound, that the
subject, object, or complement, is not to be separated from its verb
even by a comma (though two commas belonging to an inserted
parenthetic clause or phrase or word may intervene). It follows that
there is no logical or grammatical justification, though there may
be a rhetorical one, for the comma so frequently placed before the that
of an indirect statement. Our own opinion (which is, however,
contrary to the practice of most compositors) is that this should
always be omitted except when the writer has a very distinct reason
for producing rhetorical impressiveness by an unusual pause. Some
very ugly overstopping would thus be avoided.
Yet there, too, we find, that character has its problems to
We know, that, in the individual man, consciousness
And it is said, that, on a visitor once asking to see his library,
Descartes led him...—Huxley.
The general opinion however was, that, if Bute had been early
practised in debate, he might have become an impressive
The comma before whether in the next is actually misleading;
we are tempted to take as adverbial what is really a substantival
clause, object to the verbal noun indifference:
The book ... had merits due to the author's indifference, whether
he showed bad taste or not, provided he got nearer to the
impression he wished to convey.—Speaker.
Grammar, however, would afford some justification for distinguishing
between the substantival clause as subject, object, or complement,
and the substantival clause in apposition with one of these. Though
there should decidedly be no comma in He said that.., it is
strictly defensible in It is said, that... The that-clause
in the latter is explanatory of, and in apposition with, it;
and the ordinary sign of apposition is a comma. Similarly, My
opinion is that: It is my opinion, that. But as there seems to
be no value whatever in the distinction, our advice is to do without
the comma in all ordinary cases of either kind. A useful and
reasonable exception is made in some manuals; for instance, in
Bigelow's Manual of Punctuation we read: 'Clauses like
"It is said", introducing several propositions or
quotations, each preceded by the word that, should have a
comma before the first that. But if a single proposition or
quotation only is given, no comma is necessary. Example:
Philosophers assert, that Nature is unlimited in her operations,
that she has inexhaustible treasures in reserve, that...'
Anything that shows the reader what he is to expect, and so saves
him the trouble of coming back to revise his first impressions, is
desirable if there is no strong reason against it.
A more important distinction is this: He said, &c., may
have for its object, and It is said, &c., for its
(virtual) subject, either the actual words said, or a slight
rearrangement of them (not necessarily to the eye, but at least to
the mind), which makes them more clearly part of the grammatical
construction, and turns them into true subordinate clauses. Thus He
told her, You are in danger may be kept, but is usually altered
to He told her that she was in danger, or to He told her
she was in danger. In the first, You are in danger is not
properly a subordinate clause, but a sentence, which may be said to
be in apposition with these words understood. In the second
and third alike, the altered words are a subordinate substantival
clause, the object to told. It follows that when the actual
words are given as such (this is sometimes only to be known by the
tone: compare I tell you, I will come, and I tell you I
will come), a comma should be inserted; whereas, when they are
meant as mere reported or indirect speech, it should be omitted.
Actual words given as such should also be begun with a capital
letter; and if they consist of a compound sentence, or of several
sentences, a comma will not suffice for their introduction; a colon,
a colon and dash, or a full stop, with quotation marks always in the
last case, and usually in the others, will be necessary; but these
are distinctions that need not be considered here in detail.
Further, it must be remembered that substantival clauses include
indirect questions as well as indirect statements, and that the same
rules will apply to them. The two following examples are very badly
(a) Add to all this that he died in his thirty-seventh
year: and then ask, if it be strange that his poems are
Accommodation of the stops to the words would give:
and then ask if it be strange that his poems are imperfect.
And accommodation of the words to the stops would give:
and then ask, Is it strange that his poems are imperfect?
(b) It may be asked can further depreciation be
The two correct alternatives here are similarly:
It may be asked, Can further depreciation be afforded?
It may be asked whether further depreciation can be afforded.
As the sentences stood originally, we get in the Carlyle a most
theatrical, and in the Times a most slovenly effect.
- The verb and its subject, object, or complement.
Our argument against the common practice of placing a comma before
substantival that-clauses and others like them was, in brief:
This sort of that-clause is simply equivalent to a noun; that
noun is, with few exceptions, the subject, object, or complement, to
a verb; and between things so closely and essentially connected as
the verb and any of these no stop should intervene (unless for very
strong and special rhetorical reasons). This last principle, that
the verb and its essential belongings must not be parted, was merely
assumed. We think it will be granted by any one who reads the next
two examples. It is felt at once that a writer who will break the
principle with so little excuse as here will shrink from nothing.
So poor Byron was dethroned, as I had prophesied he would be,
though I had little idea that his humiliation, would be brought
about by one, whose sole strength consists in setting people to
He was, moreover, not an unkind man; but the crew of the Bounty,
mutinied against him, and set him half naked in an open
Very little better than these, but each with some perceptible
motive, are the next six:
Depreciation of him, fetched up at a stroke the glittering armies
of her enthusiasm.—Meredith.
Opposition to him, was comparable to the stand of blocks of timber
before a flame.—Meredith.
In each of these the comma acts as an accent upon him, and is
purely rhetorical and illogical.
Such women as you, are seldom troubled with remorse.—Corelli.
Here the comma guards us from taking you are together. We
have already said that this device is illegitimate. Such sentences
should be recast; for instance, Women like you are seldom, &c.
The thick foliage of the branching oaks and elms in my grounds
afforded grateful shade and repose to the tired body, while the
tranquil loveliness of the woodland and meadow scenery, comforted
and soothed the equally tired mind.—Corelli.
With them came young boys and little children, while on either
side, maidens white-veiled and rose-wreathed, paced demurely,
swinging silver censers to and fro.—Corelli.
Swift's view of human nature, is too black to admit of any hopes
of their millennium.—L. Stephen.
Loveliness, maidens, view, the strict subjects, have
adjectival phrases attached after them. The temptation to insert the
comma is comprehensible, but slight, and should have been resisted.
In the three that come next, the considerable length of the subject,
it must be admitted, makes a comma comforting; it gives us a sort of
assurance that we have kept our hold on the sentence. It is
illogical, however, and, owing to the importance of not dividing
subject from verb, unpleasantly illogical. In each case the comfort
would be equally effective if it were legitimized by the insertion
of a comma before as well as after the clause or phrase at the end
of which the present comma stands. The extra commas would be after earth,
To see so many thousand wretches burdening the earth when such as
her die, makes me think God did never intend life for a
An order of the day expressing sympathy with the families of the
victims and confidence in the Government, was adopted.—Times.
The famous researches of Schwann and Schleiden in 1837 and the
following years, founded the modern science of
It may be said that it is 'fudging' to find an excuse, as we have
proposed to do, for a stop that we mean really to do something
different from its ostensible work. But the answer is that with few
tools and many tasks to do much fudging is in fact necessary.
A special form of this, in protest against which we shall give five
examples, each from a different well-known author, is when the
subject includes and ends with a defining relative clause, after
which an illogical comma is placed. As the relative clause is of the
defining kind (a phrase that has been explained [See chapter Syntax,
it is practically impossible to fudge in these sentences by putting
a comma before the relative pronoun. Even in the first sentence the
length of the relative clause is no sufficient excuse; and in all
the others we should abolish the comma without hesitation.
The same quickness of sympathy which had served him well in his
work among the East End poor, enabled him to pour feeling into the
figures of a bygone age.—Bryce.
One of its agents is our will, but that which expresses itself in
our will, is stronger than our will.—Emerson.
The very interesting class of objects to which these belong, do
not differ from the rest of the material universe.—Balfour.
And thus, the great men who were identified with the war, began
slowly to edge over to the party...—L. Stephen.
In becoming a merchant-gild the body of citizens who formed the
'town', enlarged their powers of civic legislation.—J. R. Green.
In the two sentences that now follow from Mr. Morley, the offending
comma of the first parts centre, which is what grammarians
call the oblique complement, from its verb made; the
offending comma of the second parts the direct object groups
from its verb drew. Every one will allow that the sentences
are clumsy; most people will allow that the commas are illogical. As
for us, we do not say that, if the words are to be kept as they are,
the commas should be omitted; but we do say that a good writer, when
he found himself reduced to illogical commas, should have taken the
trouble to rearrange his words.
De Maistre was never more clear-sighted than when he made a
vigorous and deliberate onslaught upon Bacon, the centre of his
movement against revolutionary principles.—Morley.
In saying that the Encyclopaedists began a political work, what is
meant is that they drew into the light of new ideas, groups of
institutions, usages, and arrangements which affected the
well-being of France, as closely as nutrition affected the health
and strength of an individual Frenchman.—Morley.
It may be added, by way of concluding this section, that the
insertion of a comma in the middle of an absolute construction,
which is capable, as was shown in the sentence about Colonel
Hutchinson and the governor, of having very bad results indeed, is
only a particular instance and reductio ad absurdum of
inserting a comma between subject and verb. The comma in the
absolute construction is so recognized a trap that it might have
been thought needless to mention it; the following instances,
however, will show that a warning is even now necessary.
Sir E. Seymour, having replied for the Navy, the Duke of Connaught,
in replying for the Army, said...—Times.
Thus got, having been by custom poorly substituted for gat,
so that we say He got away, instead of He gat away, many persons
abbreviate gotten into got, saying He had got, for
He had gotten.—R. G. White.
The garrison, having been driven from the outer line of defences
on July 30, Admiral Witoft considered it high time to make a
But that didn't last long; for Dr. Blimber, happening to change
the position of his tight plump legs, as if he were going to get
up, Toots swiftly vanished.—Dickens.
- The adjectival clause.
This, strictly speaking, does the work of an adjective in the
sentence. It usually begins with a relative pronoun, but sometimes
with a relative adverb. The man who does not breathe dies, is
equivalent to The unbreathing man dies. The place where we
stand is holy ground, is equivalent to This place is holy
ground. But we shall include under the phrase all clauses that begin
with a relative, though some relative clauses are not adjectival,
because a division of all into defining clauses on the one hand, and
non-defining or commenting on the other, is more easily intelligible
than the division into adjectival and non-adjectival. This
distinction is more fully gone into in the chapter on Syntax, where
it is suggested that that, when possible, is the appropriate
relative for defining, and which for non-defining clauses.
That, however, is a debatable point, and quite apart from the
question of stopping that arises here. Examples of the two types
(Defining) The river that (which) runs through London is turbid.
(Commenting) The Thames, which runs through London, is turbid.
It will be seen that in the first the relative clause is an answer
to the imaginary question, 'Which river?'; that is, it defines the
noun to which it belongs. In the second, such a question as 'Which
Thames?' is hardly conceivable; the relative clause gives us a piece
of extra and non-essential information, an independent comment. The
two types are not always so easily distinguished as in these
examples constructed for the purpose. What we wish here to say is
that it would contribute much to clearness of style if writers would
always make up their minds whether they intend a definition or a
comment, and would invariably use no commas with a defining clause,
and two commas with a non-defining. All the examples that follow are
in our opinion wrong. The first three are of defining relative
clauses wrongly preceded by commas; the second three of commenting
relative clauses wrongly not preceded by commas. The last of all
there may be a doubt about. If the long clause beginning with which
is intended merely to show how great the weariness is, and which
is practically equivalent to so great that, it may be called
a defining clause, and the omission of the comma is right. But if
the which really acts as a mere connexion to introduce a new
fact that the correspondent wishes to record, the clause is
non-defining, and the comma ought according to our rule to be
inserted before it.
The man, who thinketh in his heart and hath the power
straightway (very straightway) to go and do it, is not so common
in any country.—Crockett.
Now everyone must do after his kind, be he asp or angel, and these
must. The question, which a wise man and a student of
modern history will ask, is, what that kind is.—Emerson.
Those, who are urging with most ardour what are called the
greatest benefits of mankind, are narrow, self-pleasing, conceited
A reminder is being sent to all absent members of the Nationalist
party that their attendance at Westminster is urgently required
next week when the Budget will be taken on Monday.—Times.
The Marshall Islands will pass from the control of the Jaluit
Company under that of the German colonial authorities who
will bear the cost of administration and will therefore collect
The causes of this popularity are, no doubt, in part, the extreme
simplicity of the reasoning on which the theory rests, in part its
extreme plausibility, in part, perhaps, the nature of the result which
is commonly thought to be speculatively interesting without being
Naval critics ... are showing signs of weariness which even
the reported appearance of Admiral Nebogatoff in the Malacca
Strait is unable to remove.—Times.
- The adverb, adverbial phrase, and adverbial
In writing of substantival and adjectival clauses, our appeal was
for more logical precision than is usual. We said that the comma
habitual before substantival clauses was in most cases
unjustifiable, and should be omitted even at the cost of occasional
slight discomfort. We said that with one division of adjectival, or
rather relative clauses, commas should always be used, and with
another they should always be omitted. With the adverbial clauses,
phrases, and words, on the other hand, our appeal is on the whole
for less precision; we recommend that less precision should be aimed
at, at least, though more attained, than at present. Certain kinds
of laxity here are not merely venial, but laudable: certain other
kinds are damning evidence of carelessness or bad taste or bad
education. It is not here a mere matter of choosing between one
right and one wrong way; there are many degrees.
Now is an adverb; in the house is usually an adverbial
phrase; if I know it is an adverbial clause. Logic and
grammar never prohibit the separating of any such expressions from
the rest of their sentence—by two commas if they stand in the
middle of it, by one if they begin or end it. But use of the commas
tends, especially with a single word, but also with a phrase or
clause, though in inverse proportion to its length, to modify the
meaning. I cannot do it now means no more than it says: I
cannot do it, now conveys a further assurance that the speaker
would have been delighted to do it yesterday or will be quite
willing tomorrow. This distinction, generally recognized with the
single word, applies also to clauses; and writers of judgement
should take the fullest freedom in such matters, allowing no
superstition about 'subordinate clauses' to force upon them commas
that they feel to be needless, but inclining always when in doubt to
spare readers the jerkiness of overstopping. It is a question for
rhetoric alone, not for logic, so long as the proper allowance of
commas, if any, is given; what the proper allowance is, has been
explained a few lines back. We need not waste time on exemplifying
this simple principle; there is so far no real laxity; the writer is
Laxity comes in when we choose, guided by nothing more authoritative
than euphony, to stop an adverbial phrase or adverbial clause, but
not to stop it at both ends, though it stands in the middle of its
sentence. This is an unmistakable offence against logic, and lays
one open to the condemnation of examiners and precisians. But the
point we wish to make is that in a very large class of sentences the
injury to meaning is so infinitesimal, and the benefit to sound so
considerable, that we do well to offend. The class is so large that
only one example need be given:
But with their triumph over the revolt, Cranmer and his colleagues
advanced yet more boldly.—J. R. Green.
The adverbial phrase is with their triumph over the revolt. But
does not belong to it, but to the whole sentence. The writer has no
defence whatever as against the logician; nevertheless, his reader
will be grateful to him. The familiar intrusion of a comma after
initial And and For where there is no intervening
clause to justify it, of which we gave examples when we spoke of
overstopping, comes probably by false analogy from the unpleasant
pause that rigid punctuation has made common in sentences of this
Laxity once introduced, however, has to be carefully kept within
bounds. It may be first laid down absolutely that when an adverbial
clause is to be stopped, but incompletely stopped, the omitted stop
must always be the one at the beginning, and never the one at the
end. Transgression of this is quite intolerable; we shall give
several instances at the end of the section to impress the fact. But
it is also true that even the omission of the beginning comma looks
more and more slovenly the further we get from the type of our above
cited sentence. The quotations immediately following are arranged
from the less to the more slovenly.
His health gave way, and at the age of fifty-six, he died
prematurely in harness at Quetta.—Times.
If mankind was in the condition of believing nothing, and without
a bias in any particular direction, was merely on the look-out
for some legitimate creed, it would not, I conceive, be
The party then, consisted of a man and his wife, of his
mother-in-law and his sister.—F. M. Crawford.
These men in their honorary capacity, already have
sufficient work to perform.—Guernsey Evening Press.
It will be observed that in the sentence from Mr. Balfour the chief
objection to omitting the comma between and and without
is that we are taken off on a false scent, it being natural at first
to suppose that we are to supply was again; this can only
happen when we are in the middle of a sentence, and not at the
beginning as in the pattern Cranmer sentence.
The gross negligence or ignorance betrayed by giving the first and
omitting the second comma will be convincingly shown by this array
of sentences from authors of all degrees.
It is not strange that the sentiment of loyalty should, from
the day of his accession have begun to revive.—Macaulay.
Was it possible that having loved she should not so rejoice, or
that, rejoicing she should not be proud of her love?—Trollope.
I venture to suggest that, had Lord Hugh himself been better
informed in the matter he would scarcely have placed
The necessary consequence being that the law, to uphold the
restraints of which such unusual devices are employed is in
practice destitute of the customary sanctions.—Times.
The view held ... is that, owing to the constant absence of the
Commander-in-Chief on tour it is necessary that...—Times.
The master of the house, to whom, as in duty bound I
communicated my intention...—Borrow.
After this victory, Hunyadi, with his army entered
Belgrade, to the great joy of the Magyars.—Borrow.
M. Kossuth declares that, until the King calls on the majority
to take office with its own programme chaos will prevail.—Times.
A love-affair, to be conducted with spirit and enterprise
should always bristle with opposition and difficulty.—Corelli.
And that she should force me, by the magic of her pen to
mentally acknowledge..., albeit with wrath and shame, my own
She is a hard-working woman dependant on her literary success for
a livelihood, and you, rolling in wealth do your best to
deprive her of the means of existence.—Corelli.
Although three trainings of the local militia have been conducted
under the new regime, Alderney, despite the fact that it is a
portion of the same military command has not as yet been
affected.—Guernsey Evening Press.
In one sense, everything that is adverbial is parenthetic: it can be
inserted or removed, that is, without damaging the grammar, though
not always without damaging the meaning, of the sentence. But the
adverbial parenthesis, when once inserted, forms a part of the
sentence; we have sufficiently dealt with the stops it requires in
the last section; the use of commas emphasizes its parenthetic
character, and is therefore sometimes desirable, sometimes not; no
more need be said about it.
Another kind of parenthesis is that whose meaning practically
governs the sentence in the middle of which it is nevertheless
inserted as an alien element that does not coalesce in grammar with
the rest. The type is—But, you will say, Caesar is not an
aristocrat. This kind is important for our purpose because of the
muddles often made, chiefly by careless punctuation, between the
real parenthesis and words that give the same meaning, but are not,
like it, grammatically separable. We shall start with an
indisputable example of this muddle:
Where, do you imagine, she would lay it?—Meredith.
These commas cannot possibly indicate anything but parenthesis; but,
if the comma'd words were really a parenthesis, we ought to have would
she instead of she would. The four sentences that now
follow are all of one pattern. The bad stopping is probably due to
this same confusion between the parenthetic and the non-parenthetic.
But it is possible that in each the two commas are independent, the
first being one of those that are half rhetorical and half caused by
false analogy, which have been mentioned as common after initial And
and For; and the second being the comma wrongly used, as we
have maintained, before substantival that-clauses.
Whence, it would appear, that he considers that all deliverances
of consciousness are original judgments.—Balfour.
Hence, he reflected, that if he could but use his literary
instinct to feed some commercial undertaking, he might gain a
But, depend upon it, that no Eastern difficulty needs our
intervention so seriously as...—Huxley.
And yet, it has been often said, that the party issues were
hopelessly confused.—L. Stephen.
A less familiar form of this mistake, and one not likely to occur
except in good writers, since inferior ones seldom attempt the
construction that leads to it, is sometimes found when a
subordinating conjunction is placed late in its clause, after the
object or other member. In the Thackeray sentence, it will be
observed that the first comma would be right (1) if them had
stood after discovered instead of where it does, (2) if them
had been omitted, and any had served as the common object to
And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious
idea of terror, they become without comparison greater.—Burke.
Any of which peccadilloes, if Miss Sharp discovered, she did not
tell them to Lady Crawley.—Thackeray.
- The misplaced comma.
Some authors would seem to have an occasional feeling that here or
hereabouts is the place for a comma, just as in handwriting some
persons are well content if they get a dot in somewhere within
measurable distance of its i. The dot is generally over the
right word at any rate, and the comma is seldom more than one word
off its true place.
All true science begins with empiricism—though all true science
is such exactly, in so far as it strives to pass out of the
Exactly qualifies and belongs to in so far, &c.,
not such. The comma should be before it.
This, they for the most part, throw away as worthless.—Corelli.
For the most part, alone, is the adverbial parenthesis.
But this fault occurs, perhaps nine times out of ten, in combination
with the that-clause comma so often mentioned. It may be
said, when our instances have been looked into, that in each of
them, apart from the that-clause comma, which is recognized
by many authorities, there is merely the licence that we have
ourselves allowed, omission of the first, without omission of the
last, comma of an adverbial parenthesis. But we must point out that
Huxley, Green, and Mr. Balfour, man of science, historian, and
philosopher, all belong to that dignified class of writers which is
supposed to, and in most respects does, insist on full logical
stopping; they, in view of their general practice, are not entitled
to our slovenly and merely literary licences.
And the second is, that for the purpose of attaining culture, an
exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual
But the full discussion which followed over the various claims
showed, that while exacting to the full what he believed to be his
right, Edward desired to do justice to the country.—J. R. Green.
The one difference between these gilds in country and town was,
that in the latter case, from their close local neighbourhood,
they tended to coalesce.—J. R. Green.
It follows directly from this definition, that however restricted
the range of possible knowledge may be, philosophy can never be
excluded from it.—Balfour.
But the difficulty here, as it seems to me, is, that if you start
from your idea of evolution, these assumptions are...—Balfour.
He begged me to give over all unlawful pursuits, saying, that if
persisted in, they were sure of bringing a person to
This name, liberally interpreted, is meant to include several more
or less distinct questions. They are difficult, and much debated by
authorities on punctuation, but are of no great importance. We shall
take the liberty of partly leaving them undecided, and partly giving
arbitrary opinions; to argue them out would take more space than it
is worth while to give. But it is worth while to draw
attention to them, so that each writer may be aware that they exist,
and at least be consistent with himself. Typical sentences (from
a. Industry, honesty, and temperance, are essential to
b. Let us freely drink in the soul of love and beauty and
wisdom, from all nature and art and history.—B.
c. Plain honest truth wants no colouring.—B.
d. Many states are in alliance with, and under the
protection of France.—B.
Common variants for (a) are (1) Industry, honesty and
temperance are essential... (2) Industry, honesty and temperance,
are essential... (3) Industry, honesty, and temperance are
essential... We unhesitatingly recommend the original and fully
stopped form, which should be used irrespective of style, and not be
interfered with by rhetorical considerations; it is the only one to
which there is never any objection. Of the examples that follow, the
first conforms to the correct type, but no serious harm would be
done if it did not. The second also conforms; and, if this had
followed variant (1) or (2), here indistinguishable, we should have
been in danger of supposing that Education and Police were one
department instead of two. The third, having no comma after interests,
follows variant (3), and, as it happens, with no bad effect on the
meaning. All three variants, however, may under different conditions
produce ambiguity or worse.
But those that remain, the women, the youths, the children, and
the elders, work all the harder.—Times.
Japanese advisers are now attached to the departments of the
Household, War, Finance, Education, and Police.—Times.
An American, whose patience, tact, and ability in reconciling
conflicting interests have won the praise of all nationalities.—Times.
Sometimes enumerations are arranged in pairs; it is then most
unpleasant to have the comma after the last pair omitted, as in:
The orange and the lemon, the olive and the walnut elbow each
other for a footing in the fat dark earth.—F. M. Crawford.
There is a bastard form of enumeration against which warning is
seriously needed. It is taken for, but is not really, a legitimate
case of type (a); and a quite unnecessary objection to the
repetition of and no doubt supplies the motive. Examples are:
He kept manoe
uvring upon Neipperg, who counter-manoe
uvred with vigilance, good judgment, and would not come to
Moltke had recruited, trained, and knew by heart all the men under
Hence loss of time, of money, and sore trial of patience.—R. G.
The principle is this: in an enumeration given by means of a comma
or commas, the last comma being replaced by or combined with and—our
type (a), that is—, there must not be anything that is
common to two members (as here, counter-manoe
uvred with, had, loss) without being common to all. We may say,
Moltke had recruited and trained and knew, Moltke had recruited, had
trained, and knew, or, Moltke had recruited, trained, and known; but
we must not say what the Times says. The third sentence may
run, Loss of time and money, and sore trial, or, Loss of time, of
money, and of patience; but not as it does.
So much for type (a). Type (b) can be very shortly
disposed of. It differs in that the conjunction (and, or, nor,
&c.) is expressed every time, instead of being represented
except in the last place by a comma. It is logically quite
unnecessary, but rhetorically quite allowable, to use commas as well
as conjunctions. The only caution needed is that, if commas are used
at all, and if the enumeration does not end the sentence, and is not
concluded by a stronger stop, a comma must be inserted after the
last member as well as after the others. In the type sentence, which
contains two enumerations, it would be legitimate to use commas as
well as ands with one set and not with the other, if it were
desired either to avoid monotony or to give one list special
emphasis. The three examples now to be added transgress the rule
about the final comma. We arrange them from bad to worse; in the
last of them, the apparently needless though not necessarily wrong
comma after fall suggests that the writer has really felt a
comma to be wanting to the enumeration, but has taken a bad shot
with it, as in the examples of section 6 on the misplaced comma.
Neither the Court, nor society, nor Parliament, nor the older men
in the Army have yet recognized the fundamental truth that...—Times.
A subordinate whose past conduct in the post he fills, and whose
known political sympathies make him wholly unfitted, however loyal
his intentions may be, to give that...—Times.
But there are uninstructed ears on whom the constant abuse, and
imputation of low motives may fall, with a mischievous and
Of type (c) the characteristic is that we have two or more
adjectives attached to a following noun; are there to be commas
between the adjectives, or not? The rule usually given is that there
should be, unless the last adjective is more intimately connected
with the noun, so that the earlier one qualifies, not the noun, but
the last adjective and the noun together; it will be noticed that we
strictly have no enumeration then at all. This is sometimes useful;
and so is the more practical and less theoretic direction to ask
whether and could be inserted, and if so use the comma, but
not otherwise. These both sound sufficient in the abstract. But that
there are doubts left in practice is shown by the type sentence,
which Beadnell gives as correct, though either test would rather
require the comma. He gives also as correct, Can flattery soothe the
dull, cold ear of death?—which is not very clearly distinguishable
from the other. Our advice is to use these tests when in doubt, but
with a leaning to the omission of the comma. If it happens that a
comma of this particular class is the only stop in a sentence, it
has a false appearance of dividing the sentence into two parts that
is very unpleasant, and may make the reader go through it twice to
make sure that all is right—an inconvenience that should by all
means be spared him.
Type (d) is one in which the final word or phrase of a
sentence has two previous expressions standing in the same
grammatical relation to it, but their ending with different
prepositions, or the fact that one is to be substituted for the
other, or the length of the expressions, or some other cause,
obscures this identity of relation. Add to the type sentence the
His eloquence was the main, one might almost say the sole, source
of his influence.—Bryce.
To dazzle people more, he learned or pretended to learn, the
...apart from philosophical and sometimes from theological,
The rules we lay down are: (1) If possible use no stops at all. (2)
Never use the second comma and omit the first. (3) Even when the
first is necessary, the second may often be dispensed with. (4) Both
commas may be necessary if the phrases are long.
We should correct all the examples, including the type: the type
under rule (1); the Bryce (which is strictly correct) under rule
(3); the Bagehot under rules (2) and (1); and the Balfour under
rules (2) and (3); the last two are clearly wrong. The four would
then stand as follows:
Many states are in alliance with and under the protection of
His eloquence was the main, one might almost say the sole source
of his influence.
To dazzle people more, he learned or pretended to learn the
...apart from philosophical, and sometimes from theological
Learners will be inclined to say: all this is very indefinite; do
give us a clear rule that will apply to all cases. Such was the view
with which, on a matter of even greater importance than punctuation,
Procrustes identified himself; but it brought him to a bad end. The
clear rule, Use all logical commas, would give us:
He was born, in, or near, London, on December 24th, 1900.
No one would write this who was not suffering from bad hypertrophy
of the grammatical conscience. The clear rule, Use no commas in this
sort of enumeration, would give:
If I have the queer ways you accuse me of, that is because but I
should have thought a man of your perspicacity might have been
expected to see that it was also why I live in a hermitage all by
No one would write this without both commas (after because
and why) who was not deeply committed to an anti-comma
crusade. Between the two extremes lie cases calling for various
treatment; the ruling principle should be freedom within certain
- The comma between independent sentences.
Among the signs that more particularly betray the uneducated writer
is inability to see when a comma is not a sufficient stop.
Unfortunately little more can be done than to warn beginners that
any serious slip here is much worse than they will probably suppose,
and recommend them to observe the practice of good writers.
It is roughly true that grammatically independent sentences should
be parted by at least a semicolon; but in the first place there are
very large exceptions to this; and secondly, the writer who really
knows a grammatically independent sentence when he sees it is hardly
in need of instruction; this must be our excuse for entering here
into what may be thought too elementary an explanation. Let us take
the second point first; it may be of some assistance to remark that
a sentence joined to the previous one by a coordinating conjunction
is grammatically independent, as well as one not joined to it at
all. But the difference between a coordinating and a subordinating
conjunction is itself in English rather fine. Every one can see that
'I will not try; it is dangerous' is two independent
sentences—independent in grammar, though not in thought. But it is
a harder saying that 'I will not try, for it is dangerous' is also
two sentences, while 'I will not try, because it is dangerous' is
one only. The reason is that for coordinates, and because
subordinates; instead of giving lists, which would probably be
incomplete, of the two kinds of conjunction, we mention that a
subordinating conjunction may be known from the other kind by its
being possible to place it and its clause before the previous
sentence instead of after, without destroying the sense: we can say
'Because it is dangerous, I will not try', but not 'For it is
dangerous, I will not try'. This test cannot always be applied in
complicated sentences; simple ones must be constructed for testing
the conjunction in question.
Assuming that it is now understood (1) what a subordinating and what
a coordinating conjunction is, (2) that a member joined on by no
more than a coordinating conjunction is a grammatically independent
sentence, or simply a sentence in the proper meaning of the word,
and not a subordinate clause, we return to the first point. This was
that, though independent sentences are regularly parted by at least
a semicolon, there are large exceptions to the rule. These we shall
only be able to indicate very loosely. There are three conditions
that may favour the reduction of the semicolon to a comma: (1) Those
coordinating conjunctions which are most common tend in the order of
their commonness to be humble, and to recognize a comma as
sufficient for their dignity. The order may perhaps be given as: and,
or, but, so, nor, for; conjunctions less common than these
should scarcely ever be used with less than a semicolon; and many
good writers would refuse to put a mere comma before for. (2)
Shortness and lightness of the sentence joined on helps to lessen
the need for a heavy stop. (3) Intimate connexion in thought with
the preceding sentence has the same effect. Before giving our
examples, which are all of undesirable commas, we point out that in
the first two there are independent signs of the writers' being
uneducated; and such signs will often be discoverable. It will be
clear from what we have said why the others are bad—except perhaps
the third; it is particularly disagreeable to have two successive
independent sentences tagged on with commas, as those beginning with
nor and for are in that example.
No peace at night he enjoys, for he lays awake.—Guernsey
Now accepted, nominal Christendom believes this, and strives to
attain unto it, then why the inconsistency of creed and
But who is responsible to Government for the efficiency of the
Army? The Commander-in-Chief and no one else, nor has
anyone questioned the fact, for it is patent.—Times.
But even on this theory the formula above stated holds good, for
such systems, so far from being self-contained (as it were) and
sufficient evidence for themselves, are really...—Balfour.
Some banks on the Nevsky Prospect are having iron shutters fitted,
otherwise there is nothing apparently to justify General
Everybody knows where his own shoe pinches, and, if people find
drawbacks in the places they inhabit, they must also find
advantages, otherwise they would not be there.—Times.
We have suffered many things at the hands of the Russian Navy
during the war, nevertheless the news that Admiral
Rozhdestvensky ... will send a thrill of admiration...—Times.
I think that on the whole we may be thankful for the architectural
merits of the Gaiety block, it has breadth and dignity of design
and groups well on the angular site.—Times.
It will not be irrelevant to add here, though the point has been
touched upon in Understopping, that though a light and-clause
may be introduced by no more than a comma, it does not follow that
it need not be separated by any stop at all, as in:
When the Motor Cars Act was before the House it was suggested that
these authorities should be given the right to make
recommendations to the central authorities and that right was
- The semicolon between subordinate members.
Just as the tiro will be safer if he avoids commas before
independent sentences, so he will generally be wise not to use a
semicolon before a mere subordinate member. We have explained,
indeed, that it is sometimes quite legitimate for rhetorical
reasons, and is under certain circumstances almost required by
proportion. This is when the sentence contains commas doing less
important work than the one about which the question arises. But the
tiro's true way out of the difficulty is to simplify his sentences
so that they do not need such differentiation. Even skilful writers,
as the following two quotations will show, sometimes come to grief
One view called me to another; one hill to its fellow, half across
the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the
snapping forward of a lever, I let the county flow under my
Nay, do not the elements of all human virtues and all human vices;
the passions at once of a Borgia and of a Luther, lie written, in
stronger or fainter lines, in the consciousness of every
In the first of these the second comma and the semicolon clearly
ought to change places. In the second it looks as if Carlyle had
thought it dull to have so many commas about; but the remedy was
much worse than dullness. Avoidance of what a correspondent supposes
to be dull, but what would in fact be natural and right, accounts
also for the following piece of vicarious rhetoric; the writer is
not nearly so excited, it may be suspected, as his semicolons would
make him out. The ordinary sensible man would have (1) used commas,
and (2) either omitted the third and fourth denies (reminding
us of Zola's famous j'accuse, not vicarious, and on an
adequate occasion), or else inserted an and before the last
Mr. Loomis denies all three categorically. He denies that the
Asphalt Company paid him £2,000 or any other sum; denies
that he purchased a claim against the Venezuelan Government and
then used his influence when Minister at Caracas to collect the
claim; denies that he agreed with Mr. Meyers or anybody else to
use his influence for money.—Times.
- The exclamation mark when there is no
My friend! this conduct amazes me!—B.
We must differ altogether from Beadnell's rule that 'This point is
used to denote any sudden emotion of the mind, whether of joy,
grief, surprise, fear, or any other sensation'—at least as it is
exemplified in his first instance, given above. The exclamation mark
after friend is justifiable, not the other. The stop should
be used, with one exception, only after real exclamations. Real
exclamations include (1) the words recognized as interjections, as alas,
(2) fragmentary expressions that are not complete sentences, as My
friend in the example, and (3) complete statements that contain
an exclamatory word, as:
What a piece of work is man!—B.
The exception mentioned above is this: when the writer wishes to
express his own incredulity or other feeling about what is not his
own statement, but practically a quotation from some one else, he is
at liberty to do it with a mark of exclamation; in the following
example, the epitaph-writer expresses either his wonder or his
incredulity about what Fame says.
Entomb'd within this vault a lawyer lies
Who, Fame assureth us, was just and wise!—B.
The exclamation mark is a neat and concise sneer at the legal
Outside these narrow limits the exclamation mark must not be used.
We shall quote a very instructive saying of Landor's: 'I read
warily; and whenever I find the writings of a lady, the first thing
I do is to cast my eye along her pages, to see whether I am likely
to be annoyed by the traps and spring-guns of interjections; and if
I happen to espy them I do not leap the paling'. To this we add that
when the exclamation mark is used after mere statements it deserves
the name, by which it is sometimes called, mark of admiration; we
feel that the writer is indeed lost in admiration of his own wit or
impressiveness. But this use is mainly confined to lower-class
authors; when a grave historian stoops to it, he gives us quite a
different sort of shock from what he designed.
The unfortunate commander was in the situation of some bold, high-mettled
cavalier, rushing to battle on a warhorse whose tottering joints
threaten to give way at every step, and leave his rider to the
mercy of his enemies!—Prescott.
The road now struck into the heart of a mountain region, where
woods, precipices, and ravines were mingled together in a sort of
chaotic confusion, with here and there a green and sheltered
valley, glittering like an island of verdure amidst the wild
breakers of a troubled ocean!—Prescott.
- Confusion between question and exclamation.
Fortunate man!—who would not envy you! Love!—who would, who
could exist without it—save me!—Corelli.
What wonder that the most docile of Russians should be crying out
We have started with three indisputable instances of the exclamation
mark used for the question mark. It is worth notice that the correct
stopping for the end of the second quotation (though such accuracy
is seldom attempted) would be:—long?"? To have fused two
questions into an exclamation is an achievement. But these are mere
indefensible blunders, not needing to be thought twice about, such
as author and compositor incline to put off each on the other's
The case is not always so clear. In the six sentences lettered for
reference, a-d have the wrong stop; in e the stop
implied by he exclaims is also wrong; in f, though the
stop is right assuming that the form of the sentence is what was
really meant, we venture to question this point, as we do also in
some of the earlier sentences. Any one who agrees with the details
of this summary can save himself the trouble of reading the
a. In that interval what had I not lost!—Lamb.
b. And what will not the discontinuance cost
c. A streak of blue below the hanging alders is certainly a
characteristic introduction to the kingfisher. How many people
first see him so?—Times.
d. Does the reading of history make us fatalists? What
courage does not the opposite opinion show!—Emerson.
e. What economy of life and money, he exclaims, would not
have been spared the empire of the Tsars had it not rendered war
certain by devoting itself so largely to the works of peace.—Times.
f. How many, who think no otherwise than the young painter,
have we not heard disbursing secondhand hyperboles?—Stevenson.
It will be noticed that in all these sentences except c there
is a negative, which puts them, except f, wrong; while in c
it is the absence of the negative that makes the question wrong. It
will be simplest to start with c. The writer clearly means to
let us know that many people see the kingfisher first as a blue
streak. He might give this simply so, as a statement. He might
(artificially) give it as an exclamation—How many first see him
so! Or he might (very artificially) give it as a question—How
many do not first see him so?—a 'rhetorical question' in which
How many interrogative is understood to be equivalent to Few
positive. He has rejected the simple statement; vaulting ambition
has o'erleapt, and he has ended in a confusion between the two
artificial ways of saying the thing, taking the words of the
possible exclamation and the stop of the possible question. In a,
b, d, and implicitly in e, we have the converse
arrangement, or derangement. But as a little more clear thinking is
required for them, we point out that the origin of the confusion
(though the careless printing of fifty or a hundred years ago no
doubt helped to establish it) lies in the identity between the words
used for questions and for exclamations. It will be enough to
suggest the process that accounts for a; the ambiguity is
easily got rid of by inserting a noun with what.
Question: What amount had I lost?
Exclamation: What an amount I had lost!
That is the first stage; the resemblance is next increased by
inverting subject and verb in the exclamation, which is both natural
enough in that kind of sentence, and particularly easy after In
that interval. So we get
Question: In that interval, what (amount) had I lost?
Exclamation: In that interval, what (an amount) had I lost!
The words, when the bracketed part of each sentence is left out, are
now the same; but the question is of course incapable of giving the
required meaning. The writer, seeing this, but deceived by the order
of words into thinking the exclamation a question, tries to mend it
by inserting not; what ... not, in rhetorical questions,
being equivalent to everything. At this stage some writers
stick, as Stevenson in f. Others try to make a right out of
two wrongs by restoring to the quondam exclamation, which has been
wrongly converted with the help of not into a question, the
exclamation mark to which it has after conversion no right. Such is
the genesis of a, b, d. The proper method, when the simple
statement is rejected, as it often reasonably may be, is to use the
exclamation, not the Stevensonian question, 1
to give the exclamation its right mark, and not to insert the
- Internal question and exclamation marks.
By this name we do not mean that insertion of a bracketed stop of
which we shall nevertheless give one example. That is indeed a
confession of weakness and infallible sign of the prentice hand, and
further examples will be found in Airs and Graces, miscellaneous;
but it is outside grammar, with which these sections are concerned.
Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to ascertain
the exact position of landlords whose tenants decline to pay rent,
and whose only asset (!) from their property is the income-tax now
What is meant is the ugly stop in the middle of a sentence,
unbracketed and undefended by quotation marks, of which examples
follow. To novelists, as in the first example, it may be necessary
for the purpose of avoiding the nuisance of perpetual quotation
marks. But elsewhere it should be got rid of by use of the indirect
question or otherwise. Excessive indulgence in direct questions or
exclamations where there is no need for them whatever is one of the
sensational tendencies of modern newspapers.
Why be scheming? Victor asked.—Meredith.
What will Japan do? is thought the most pressing question of
all.—Times. (What Japan will do is thought, &c.)
What next? is the next question which the American Press
discusses.—Times. ('What next?' is, &c. Or, What will
come next is, &c.)
Amusing efforts are shown below at escaping the ugliness of the
internal question mark. Observe that the third quotation has a worse
blunder, since we have here two independent sentences.
Can it be that the Government will still persist in continuing the
now hopeless struggle is the question on every lip?—Times.
Men are disenchanted. They have got what they wanted in the days
of their youth, yet what of it, they ask?—Morley.
Yet we remember seeing l'Abbé Constantin some sixteen years ago
or more at the Royalty, with that fine old actor Lafontaine in the
principal part, and seeing it with lively interest. Was it
distinctly 'dates', for nothing wears so badly as the
- The unaccountable comma.
We shall now conclude these grammatical sections with a single
example of those commas about which it is only possible to say that
they are repugnant to grammar. It is as difficult to decide what
principle they offend against as what impulse can possibly have
dictated them. They are commonest in the least educated writers of
all; and, next to these, in the men of science whose overpowering
conscientiousness has made the mechanical putting in of commas so
habitual that it perhaps becomes with them a sort of reflex action,
and does itself at wrong moments without their volition.
The Rector, lineal representative of the ancient monarchs of the
University, though now, little more than a 'king of shreds and
- Of course, however, the rhetorical question is often not, as here,
the result of a confusion, nor to be described as 'very artificial'.
E.g., What would I not give to be there? To what subterfuge has
he not resorted? [back]