Punctuating Compound Predicates
I tried and tried to come up with a clever, intriguing way to introduce this article but it’s such a rampant problem, I think I’d better get to the point as soon as possible before comma overflow takes over the world.
Did you know you aren’t supposed to separate a subject from the second part of its compound predicate with a single comma?
Did you know a lot of you do it anyway? Barbarians!
First, let’s identify the structure I, the mighty Grammar Wench, am griping about now. Here’s a sentence with a compound predicate (double verb):
With a creak from his four-hundred-year old, aching bones, Maury settled himself in the oral surgeon’s chair and averted his eyes from his lack of reflection in the mirrors.
The subject is Maury and the verbs are settled and avoided. Notice there are no commas in between the subject and either of its verbs. Yet so often I see single commas right before the conjunction whose primary purpose in life seems to be to violate this rule.
Why do you do this? Why, why? Because you think you’re supposed to put a comma when you have a “natural pause” in a sentence? Begone with that myth! Because you’ve heard you’re supposed to put a comma before every coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so)? Begone with that myth! Because you think the second part of the sentence is an independent clause and can stand on its own? Get ye to your grammar book! Because you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about? Better call me and arrange for a private consultation.
The longer or more complex the sentence, the more likely is this common comma misfire to occur.
Maury licked his lips as Cherise, the dental assistant, leaned over him to adjust the table holding the sharp, shiny tools the oral surgeon would need and wished his rotten old teeth were strong enough to pierce her lovely jugular.
Do you yearn to put a comma after need? Do your twitchy revision fingers itch? Take a deep breath and exhale slowly because a comma doesn’t go there. Maury is again our subject. What did Maury do? He licked and wished. The commas around “the dental assistant” are there because it’s an appositive and the comma after “sharp” is there because sharp and silver are coordinate adjectives (fancy way of saying swappable). Separating your subject from your verbs with such legitimate commas is acceptable.
The chance for a superfluous comma increases when the author uses the conjunction “but” or “then” (which isn’t really a coordinating conjunction but people use it as one anyway and I’m not going into that here).
The oral surgeon had his doubts about fitting the old vampire with pointy dentures but figured the money was good and the vampire would abide by his Vampire-Human Relations contract.
Lovers of superfluous commas or the aforementioned mythological rules for comma placement might feel inclined to put a comma after dentures. However, those comma lovers would be in error and would deserve to be bitten by Maury.
A very, very frequent abuse I see is following a line of dialogue when a character proceeds his tag with an action.
“Thith had bether not be garlic toothpathe,” Maury said and eyed the cleaning product askance.
“Becauth if it ith, according to the Vampire-Human Relathuns contract I’m allowed to bithe you,” he added then glared at the balding little human in the white coat.
A comma, technically, does not go after the verb said in the first example or the verb added in the second example even though there are arguably natural pauses in the sentences there. Frequently authors choose to place a comma here anyway, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Other grammatical constructions might make it appear there is a comma at this juncture, when in reality the comma serves another purpose, like in the following sentence, when the commas punctuate a nonrestrictive phrase (one that can be erased without changing the sentence much):
The oral surgeon discovered that he had to give Maury a much larger than normal dose of nitrous oxide, owing to Maury’s drug resistant physiology, and turned the dial to “override”.
Also, when the compound predicate has three or more verbs, using a comma is not only acceptable but recommended because of the “items in a series” rule:
When the laughing gas wore off, Maury stretched, yawned, and accidentally bit his lip with his shiny new teeth.
Are there times when this comma is “all right”? It depends on how far you want to stretch the boundaries of English grammar and mechanics. The Chicago Manual of Style states:
“Care should be taken to distinguish between a compound sentence (two or more independent clauses) and a sentence having a compound predicate (two or more verbs having the same subject). Preferably, the comma should not be used between the parts of a compound predicate” (166).
That’s real nice, but then they muck up the waters with: “A comma may be added, however, if misapprehension or difficult reading is considered likely without such punctuation.” Examples are not given.
Online you’ll find an even murkier morass of partially correct information. The consensus of the misguided online grammarists seems to be that if you use “but” and if the second part of the predicate expresses a contrast to the first part, a comma is used, ie:
Maury had been cutting his blood bags open with scissors for six years(,) but finally could rip into them with his teeth when he inserted his wonderful new dentures with Super Undead Polygrip.
As for the Grammar Wench, she disagrees. The online sites and the vagueness of the CMS do NOT give you, my readers, permission to add this comma whenever you feel like it (you know, because the sentence just seems so long) and claim “difficult reading”, no doubt in a self-righteous and whiny voice. I’m the only one allowed to sound like that around here! Unless the circumstances are dire, leave it out, and fight with your copyeditors for it to stay out.
(And why did I put a comma before “and” in the previous sentence? Because the subject was an understood “you” and I understood that it appeared in front of both verbs!)
If you would like to ask a grammar related question or suggest a topic, feel free to email grammarwench at mcrw.com. If your question or topic is not grammar related, you will probably still get an answer but she might use her Magic 8 ball to come up with it.