Episode 270: April 7, 2011
by Bonnie Trenga
Sometimes You Need a Comma With Participial Phrases, and Sometimes You Don’t
Today, we’re revisiting the concept of restrictive versus nonrestrictive elements. In past Grammar Girl episodes, I’ve talked about how to use the words “which” and “that” with restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. This time, we’ll help you figure out what the concepts of restrictive and nonrestrictive have to do with participial phrases such as “making me cry” and “banging his nose” and when to use a comma before such phrases.
What’s the Difference Between Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses?
In case you’re not up on the concepts of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, here’s a quick review so we’re all on the same page. “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can't get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence” (1). You could say, “The boy who threw up on Space Mountain wished he had stayed home.” Here, the “who” clause is restrictive: It defines which particular boy wished he had stayed home, so you can’t delete the clause, nor do you use commas around it.
On the other hand, “a nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information” (1). Such clauses “are usually surrounded by, or preceded by, commas” (1). An example is the “which” clause in this sentence: “The town, which lies thirty miles from the capital, is famous for its potato festival.” The “which” clause is surrounded by commas. It contains additional information that is not necessary to understand the sentence, so you can delete the clause if you want.
It can be easy to get confused about restrictive and nonrestrictive elements, so remember this: If it’s extra information, use extra commas.
Sentence-Ending Participial Phrases
Now let’s get to the issue at hand. We’re comparing sentences like “She yelled at me, making me cry” and “She is the lady making me cry.” One of these “making me cry” phrases is restrictive, and one is not.
Before we reveal which sentence needs a comma and which doesn’t, let’s go back to a term from the beginning of the show: participial phrase. To understand what that is, we need to learn about participles: According to the Grammar Desk Reference, “Participles take two forms: present participles always end in -ing, and past participles usually end in -d or -ed” (2). Here, we’re concerned with present participles, such as “making.” “Making me cry” is a participial phrase because it is headed up by the participle “making.”
Participial Phrases at the End of a Sentence
Participial phrases can appear anywhere in a sentence, but today we’re focusing on those that come at the end. The problem with sentence-ending participial phrases is that writers often add such a phrase as an afterthought, and they often omit a needed comma. You can’t just stick on a phrase somewhere without paying attention to punctuation. If a participial phrase comes at the end of a sentence, use a comma—unless the phrase is restrictive (3).
Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Sentence-Ending Participial Phrases
So now we’re back to restrictive versus nonrestrictive. Remember: If it’s extra information, use extra commas. In the sentence “She yelled at me, making me cry,” you use a comma because “making me cry” is extra information. Here’s another example: “Everyone over 50 was fired, causing an uproar.” “Making me cry” and “causing an uproar” are acting as afterthoughts in these sentences, so both require a comma beforehand.
Pauses Do Not Equal Commas, but They Can Provide Clues
If you listened to the podcast version of this article, you may have noticed that I the speaker paused slightly before the participial phrases. That’s no surprise, because commas often indicate slight breaks. It’s a myth that you put in commas wherever you would pause— don’t rely on that fake rule—but it’s true that you often pause when you hit a comma when you’re reading a sentence aloud. If you missed the pauses before, listen now to this new example: “He ran into the wall, banging his nose in the process.”
Now let’s see some sentence-ending participial phrases that don’t require a comma. You already saw the sentence “She is the lady making me cry.” Here, we don’t use a comma because we can’t delete the phrase “making me cry.” This phrase defines which particular lady we’re talking about. It’s restrictive. It’s not extra information; it’s essential information. If we delete “making me cry,” we’re left with “She is the lady,” which doesn’t have the same meaning.
Here’s another example: “I saw the waves crashing onto the surfer.” Here, “crashing onto the surfer” tells us something very specific about the waves, what the waves were doing. It’s not extra information; it’s essential to the sentence.
Again, notice that when I read the sentence aloud, there was no pause before the participial phrase. I’m going to say this again because it’s important: A pause in a sentence does not mean that’s where you use a comma. However, in this specific instance, there’s no comma because the clause is restrictive, and I didn’t pause when I read it aloud. “I saw the waves crashing onto the surfer.”
When your sentence ends with a participial phrase, you need to decide if the phrase contains extra information or crucial information. If it’s added information, add a comma.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & Grammar Girl
This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
1. Fogarty, M. “Which Versus That,” Grammar Girl website. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/which-versus-that.aspx. (accessed April 4, 2011).
2. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, p. 225.
3. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, p. 207.