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Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II
Here is the rule again, in case you missed it: Essential elements in a sentence should not be enclosed in commas. Nonessential elements in a sentence should be enclosed in commas.
Last time, we applied the rule to clauses. Today we’ll look at essential and nonessential phrases (a phrase is two or more related words
with no subject and verb).
Let’s start with this sentence: The guy seated next to me wouldn’t stop talking. There are no commas because seated next to me is an essential phrase. It identifies which “guy” we mean. Without it we’d have only The guy wouldn’t stop talking, which doesn’t tell us much.
But consider this: Ezra Blung, the guy seated next to me, wouldn’t stop talking. Because we now know the man’s name, the guy seated next to me becomes nonessential. As the commas signify, the phrase contains supplementary information, and the sentence would have
the same meaning without it.
Commas are easy for some to overlook, but an omitted or out-of-place comma can change a sentence’s meaning. Here is an example: Complete the job, as directed. The comma after job tells us that the phrase as directed is nonessential. The sentence says that
you have been directed to do a job, and implies that how you do it is up to you. But what if we took out the comma: Complete the job as directed.
Now as directed is essential, and the sentence is saying something more severe: Do the work, and make sure you do it the way you were told to do
Remember that essential and nonessential are technical terms. Some authorities prefer restrictive and nonrestrictive,
perhaps to avoid the sort of confusion that may result from analyzing a sentence like this: A comma, which never ends a sentence, signals a pause.
In that example, which never ends a sentence is nonessential, and the crux of the sentence is, A comma signals a pause. That is true, but
a period also signals a pause. Perhaps the key difference between commas and periods is that a comma never ends a sentence.
So how could such an essential fact be termed “nonessential” in a sentence that describes a comma? It’s because we are using grammatical
terminology: nonessential refers to sentence structure only.
Information essential to human understanding is often found in phrases and clauses that are technically nonessential, as seen in the comma sentence above. But that sentence would be improved by making its less important fact nonessential: A comma, which signals a pause, never ends a sentence.
Memo to fledgling writers: If you find that you’ve disclosed an essential fact in a technically nonessential phrase or clause, you may want to write a new sentence.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Identify and punctuate (if needed) the italicized groups of words below. Are they clauses or phrases? Are they essential or nonessential? Answers are below.
1. People demanding special treatment make me angry.
2. His brother who is a health nut runs five miles a day.
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there.
4. Alan Lomax always fascinated by roots music first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly.
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Our crazy English language.
1) They were too close to the door to close it.
2) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
3) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
4) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. People demanding special treatment make me angry. (essential phrase, no punctuation)
2. His brother, who is a health nut, runs five miles a day. (nonessential clause, commas added)
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there. (essential clause, no punctuation)
4. Alan Lomax, always fascinated by roots music, first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly. (nonessential phrase, commas added)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.