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Are you making this terrible punctuation mistake?

split predicateDo you know where to place commas in a sentence?

A lot of writers say they’re guided by instinct when it comes to commas. Or they use the “rule” that says a comma goes where we naturally pause.

But what if your “instincts” are a bit off the mark? Or what if a reader doesn’t pause where you pause?

A big mistake that many writers make is called a split compound predicate.

What is it? Let me explain by backtracking a bit first.

A complete sentence is also called an independent clause. It consists of a subject—the actor—and a verb—the action or state of being that goes with it. It’s called independent because it’s complete, and it can stand alone.

The subject of a sentence, in the broad sense, also includes the words and phrases that describe (or modify) the actor. The verb (the subject’s action or state of being) is called a predicate, and the term can be used to describe all parts of the sentence that modify the meaning of that verb.

For our discussion here, though, we’ll just stick to the subject and predicate in the basic sense: the actor and the action. Let’s take a look.

Billy runs in the street.

In this sentence, Billy is the subject, and runs is the predicate (the verb). The subject is called a simple subject because there is only one subject: Billy. (If there were two or more it would be called a compound subject.) And the predicate is called a simple predicate because there is only one verb: runs.

Now let’s add another verb that goes with the subject.

Billy runs and sings in the street.

Billy is still the subject, but now he’s doing two things: runs and sings.

Two separate verbs used to show two actions that the subject makes is called a compound predicate.

Here are a few more examples.

My friend bikes and skates.
Jacinda writes and plays guitar.
Jamie paints and draws.
Alfonso cried and laughed.

There’s no need for commas because these sentences have just one independent clause even though they have compound predicates.

Here are the same sentences with the compound predicates mistakenly split up by commas. Read out loud and pause at each comma.

My friend bikes, and skates.
Jacinda writes, and plays guitar.
Jamie paints, and draws.
Alfonso cried, and laughed.

Which set sounds more natural? The sentences with or without the commas?

If there’s any pause at all in the first set (without commas), it’s likely to be a tiny pause after the subject as your eyes scan ahead to prepare for what’s next. You might drag out my friend or Jacinda, for example, just a little bit as you scan, and then bikes and skates or writes and plays guitar will be said quickly, almost as one word or in a steady beat. Your results may vary if you’re not a native speaker of English.

Myyy friendddd bikesandskates.
Ja-cin-daaaa writes-and-plays-guitar. 

But the pause is so short there’s no reason to use a comma (and no rule exists that says you should).

In the second set of sentences with the commas, the pause at the comma breaks up actions that go together as a group.

Myfriendbikes—and skates.

Jacindawrites—and plays guitar.

Why group the subject with the first verb by placing a comma after it? There’s no sense to it unless you have some special situation where you want the reader to pause for emphasis. In that case, you’d probably want to use an em dash (like this —) if anything.

These sentences are very simple: each has one subject and two verbs called a compound predicate. There is no need to separate the ideas.

Splitting a compound predicate with a comma is the worst punctuation mistake ever.

I’d much rather lament a missing Oxford comma (apples, oranges, and pears) because I know the reasoning behind it even if I don’t agree. Plus, the AP Stylebook endorses it though other style manuals don’t.

But breaking up a compound predicate with a comma makes no sense. It makes the reader stumble and wonder who is doing what. And there’s just no reason or rule for it.

Let’s take another look at the same sentences jazzed up a bit.

My best friend bikes when she has the time and skates on weekends when the weather is nice.
Lucy’s neighbor Jacinda writes for a living and plays guitar at coffeehouses once in awhile.
Jacinda’s boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits for a downtown gallery and draws landscapes in his spare time.
Lucia’s son Alfonso cried when the dog took the ball away and laughed when he brought it back.

These are essentially the same sentences with a bunch of modifiers added. Do any of them need a comma? If so, where would you put one? Why?

Each sentence has the same subject and compound predicate at its core even though additional descriptive words and phrases have been added.

But those sentences are pretty long and quite a mouthful, you might think. Shouldn’t you use a comma just to break things up?

Excellent point. But you shouldn’t use a comma just to break things up.

If you’re going to use a comma, you should know why you’re using it.

Here’s one of those sentences with even more padding:

Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits in oil that he sells at a downtown gallery and draws stunning landscapes with pencil and charcoal in his spare time.

Now we’ve really got a complicated sentence. It’s still just an independent clause with one subject and the same compound predicate, but by the time you get to the second verb draws, it seems like it’s just hanging there by itself. Who draws? The gallery?

Let’s add a comma.

Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits in oil that he sells at a downtown gallery, and draws stunning landscapes with pencil and charcoal in his spare time.

Draws is still hanging there all by itself even with the comma. And what we’ve got is not only a split compound predicate, we’ve also got a sentence fragment that’s dependent and can’t stand alone. That applies to the shorter examples as well.

An overly lengthy sentence with a simple subject and a compound predicate doesn’t need a comma; it needs to be reworked.

Here’s what I would do.

Jacinda’s boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits in oil that he sells at a downtown gallery, and he also draws stunning landscapes with pencil and charcoal in his spare time.

I added another subject (the pronoun he refers back to Jamie) to make the second part of the sentence an independent clause. That way, when readers pause at the comma, they get a refresher on who, exactly, I’m talking about. Plus, the transitional word “also” gives the reader a sense of continuation.

The rule for commas and independent clauses might help.

It goes like this:

When two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction such as and, or, nor, for, so, yet, or but, place a comma at the end of the first independent clause before the coordinating conjunction.

This also gives insight on why you shouldn’t split a compound predicate: the result creates a dependent clause no matter how many descriptive words are used to describe the action. And a dependent clause or a phrase—in this case a group of words with a verb and no subject—shouldn’t be separated from its parent clause (the independent clause with the subject) by a comma.

Here’s another way to restructure that long sentence.

Jacinda’s boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits in oil that he sells at a downtown gallery. He also draws stunning landscapes with pencil and charcoal in his spare time.

Just break it into two sentences. And don’t let that he sells at a downtown gallery throw you off. It might look like an independent clause, but it’s not (it’s a relative clause that’s dependent on the main clause).

Either way, the sentence is now easier to read, and you haven’t split a compound predicate.

I’m all for breaking the rules when breaking them creates a nice effect, but be sure you know the rules before you break them. Otherwise your writing will suffer, and may the grammar gods help you if you end up with a sentence like this:

I’m spending the day at home, and am working on my next project.

It’s the “and am” that drives me up the wall. I see versions of this far too often. Is it a trend or something?

Whether you like following rules or not, be kind to your readers and don’t split your compound predicates.

What about you? Have you made this mistake? Have you seen it? What punctuation mistakes make you buggy? Share in the comments!

 

12 comments… add one
  • Hi Leah,

    Thanks for this helpful post about splitting a compound predicate with a comma.

    I liked the way you explained it with progressively longer sentences.
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…The Best Thing You Can Do With Your LipsMy Profile

    Reply
    • Hi Rohi,

      You’re welcome! Glad my explanation worked for you–I try to make things as clear and easy as possible, but it’s a complicated subject. Any questions, just ask!

      Reply
  • This is so useful and enlightening! I never thought I’d enjoy reading an article on punctuation. Thanks Leah!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Niki, and thanks! Glad to hear that. Looks like I should do another one like this 🙂

      Reply
  • Hi Leah,

    Thanks for writing this post! I do have one question about this topic. How do you use proper punctuation with a sentences that has a compound predicate, but there is a transition word at the beginning of the second clause.

    For example: “The article argues that soccer is the most popular sport and further is a very fun sport to spectate.” Would you put a comma before and after “further”?

    Another similar example:

    “The rule was put in place to ensure compliance with the dress code and subsequently was enforced by the human resources department.”

    “The rule was put in place to ensure compliance with the dress code and, subsequently, was enforced by the human resources department.”

    “The rule was put in place to ensure compliance with the dress code and subsequently, was enforced by the human resources department.”

    Which of the above examples is correct?

    Thank you!!

    Carrie

    Reply
    • Hi Carrie,

      You can think of these transition words (as you’re using them) as “parenthetical elements.” They’re little interruptions–extra information that’s not technically necessary–in the middle of a sentence. Placing commas around a parenthetical element usually makes the sentence easier to read.

      So yes, I’d place a comma before and after “further.” And, with that in mind, I’d choose the second example of the three sentences with “subsequently.”

      Sometimes, if the sentence is short and the parenthetical element is only one word, the commas aren’t absolutely needed. If in doubt, though, it’s usually best to use them.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  • What do you make of sentences such as this:
    She listened to the weather forecast, then decided to go for a walk.

    I think it is an example of an incorrectly split compound predicate, but I see such sentences so often that I wonder whether something else is going on.

    My solutions to corerct this incorrect split, if it indeed is one:

    She listened to the weather forecast; then, decided to go for a walk.
    She listened to the weather forecast and then decided to go for a walk.
    She listened to the weather forecast and decided then to go for a walk.
    She listened to the weather forecast, and then she decided to go for a walk.

    Reply
  • Hi Leah,

    This was a great article, and it helped me learn a lot about extraneous commas. I am afraid, however, that you have removed necessary commas in some of your examples:

    “Jacinda’s boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits . . . .”

    How many boyfriends does Jacinda have?!

    “Jacinda’s boyfriend[,] Jamie[,] paints gorgeous portraits . . . .”

    Even if his girl is seeing another boyfriends, at least our Jamie isn’t one of her ugly ones.

    “Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend Jamie paints gorgeous portraits . . . .”

    “Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend[,] Jamie[,] paints gorgeous portraits . . . .”

    Reply
  • Thank you for this posting. I am still nonetheless confused by certain sentence constructions that appear to fall into the punctuation problem you discuss here. I wish this post included more examples than just the one (excellent) one you gave.

    Consider this sentence:

    “John ate slices of pizza until he couldn’t think anymore and had to put down the television remote, and ended up drinking enough beers to send himself to the hospital.”

    In thinking this over many times, I can see nothing really wrong with the comma before “and ended up” here. In fact, removing the comma makes the sentence read very awkwardly. I think I am often confused when the first part of the sentence, much like in my example here, contains one or multiple “and”s.

    I feel like I see sentences of this nature all the time in a wide variety of texts, and not from bad writers at all, and I am struggling with the thought that one has always to either add a subject pronoun in (“and he ended up”) or to break one sentence into two sentences to fix this.

    The sentence “Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend, Jamie, paints gorgeous portraits in oil that he sells at a downtown gallery, and draws stunning landscapes with pencil and charcoal in his spare time” does not necessarily read as incorrect to me either. The word “his” in the second part of the sentence lets me know what the sentence is referring to, lets me know who is connected to the action “draws”.

    I find this particular issue a really tricky one.

    What about “Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend, Jamie, paints gorgeous portraits in oil while patting his head and humming along to music, and draws stunning landscapes without the need of an accompanying image”?

    Thanks so much.

    I am trying to correct this particular confusion in my own writing, but I am never fully convinced that what I am doing is wrong. Why? Help me!

    Reply
    • I can understand your confusion. Best bet:

      Rip sentences down to their basic structure (subject-verb-object).

      “Jacinda’s handsome boyfriend, Jamie, paints gorgeous portraits in oil while patting his head and humming along to music, and draws stunning landscapes without the need of an accompanying image”?

      “Jacinda’s boyfriend paints and draws.” Or “Jamie paints and draws” to make it simpler. That’s the basic sentence without all the description and extra information. Would you use a comma? If so, why? Read it out loud with the comma and without (the comma indicates a pause). “Jamie paints, … and draws.”

      The whole original sentence is wordy (obviously) so I wouldn’t use it anyway.

      Yes, you can see errors in the writing of good writers (I make them too when I’m in a hurry). But if we know the rules and why they work, writing improves.

      Another tip: Get a reputable style manual like the Chicago Manual of Style (the online subscription is great), and look things up as you go along. End your confusion. 🙂

      One more thing: There’s no real “right and wrong” with grammar and writing rules and styles. It’s just about common conventions that are expected and commonly used to make reading easy for readers accustomed to those rules.

      Reply
      • Thanks for writing back so quickly!

        I want you to know that I was drawn to your website because it is one of the very few out there (in the entire internet, could you imagine?) that attempts to explain this writing issue with any detail. I also want you to know that I get that there’s no real right and wrong with grammar and writing rules. I’m just debating whether or not this particular rule is actually incorrect, or perhaps is simply not pragmatic in some way, when it comes to certain sentence formulations.

        ” ‘Jacinda’s boyfriend paints and draws.’ Or ‘Jamie paints and draws’ to make it simpler. That’s the basic sentence without all the description and extra information. Would you use a comma? If so, why? Read it out loud with the comma and without (the comma indicates a pause). ‘Jamie paints, … and draws.’ ”

        It’s easy to see that a comma should not be used when the sentence is quite small, such as “Jamie paints a picture and drinks a beer.”

        But I’m just not convinced that this rule holds at all when the sentence is much longer, and I do not believe that such sentences necessarily need to include a subject pronoun or be split into two smaller sentences. Lastly, “wordy” is pretty subjective, don’t you think? I mean, in the world of academia and other related fields, the sentence I wrote for you is barely verging on dense or wordy.

        I’ve been stumped by this issue since I read your post, and looking for examples to show you. Just today I found several in a well-written academic article. Here’s one:

        1.

        Moreover, Coates contended that Sanders’s class-based remedy is rooted in “the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible,” and argued that … (another quote follows that does not include a subject pronoun).

        What is wrong with this sentence? Should we write “, and he argued that”?

        Or try these next two sentences that I made up today. I see these kinds of formulations all the time:

        2.

        “John decided that day that he would never allow a person to talk rudely to him again, and that there wasn’t enough room in his city for another stupid tough-guy.”

        Is there anything wrong with this one?

        What about this formulation:

        “John decided that day that he would never allow a person to talk rudely to him again, and told himself that there wasn’t enough room in his city for another stupid tough-guy.”

        I don’t see a problem with either.

        3.

        Lastly, what about this one? (the type of which I see all the time):

        “John was quite concerned about the state of his city, arguing that nothing had been done in the past ten months about the garbage problem.”

        This sentence ends with a participle phrase, which led me to further research these kinds of sentences on major sites (OWL purdue etc.).

        Indeed, these sentences are perfectly fine apparently.

        My question would be then if a participle phrase can take this form, one that does not include any reference to the subject, then why can’t the following do something similar?:

        “Jamie paints gorgeous portraits in oil that he sells at a gallery in a sketchy neighbourhood downtown, and draws stunning landscapes with pencil and charcoal in his spare time.”

        I think my logic for the comma here is that, compared to the short sentence of mention that began this post, in a very long sentence, the comma is simply signalling the beginning of a second action committed by the same subject, AND THESE ACTIONS ARE NOT RELATED, or THEY NEED TO BE SEPARATED IN THOUGHT FOR SOME MARKED REASON.

        If the last quoted sentence is technically wrong, I feel that without the comma it would draw some kind of implicit connection that should not be made.

        At the same time, I resist the thought that all sentences of this type need to be reformulated, as I mentioned before, I don’t really see any problem with it.

        Like, rather than the rule, explain to me the logic of why we would implement the rule in this situation. Such rules are usually required simply to ensure that the subject of the sentence is clear and that its actions can be clearly connected back to it.

        I see no issue in the above sentence in either of these regards. Thus, why bother? Just to be “right”?

        Actually, being “right” might make this sentence sound worse, not better.

        The title of your post, “Are you making this terrible punctuation mistake?”, really encourages one to stay clearly away from anything like the sentences I’ve presented you with, but each of them seems perfectly fine to me.

        Consider this last one from the article I mentioned above:

        “Most of all, Coates is wrong about how we have achieved black political and social progress in the past, and what we should do going forward.”

        Now, it seems to me right away that the comma does not need to be there. But then when I seek to take it away, something feels different/wrong — and not just because of the change.

        “”Most of all, Coates is wrong about how we have achieved black political and social progress in the past and what we should do going forward.”

        Here, again, without the comma, the rhythm of the sentence rushes right from “past” into “and what we should…,” causing something to sound off. Is it because we have a compound object in the former part? Perhaps this is it. But adding to this, it seems as if this latter part should be marked off as distinctly different from the former.

        The author is discussing two distinctly different ideas here. So, should they be mashed together because they share the same verb? I’m confused.

        All in all, I just find that I can find so many examples of such sentences that your title seems a little intense and misleading. Is this really a terrible punctuation error? In small sentences, it would seem, yes. But in the others that I’ve shown you, and that you have written yourself, I’m hesitant to call them errors at all, let alone terrible, and I am actually more concerned with the creation of “bad writing” via the “correction” of such errors.

        One last idea to chew on: Is it possible that sometimes a part of a sentence is, technically speaking wrong, but is actually operating as a different kind of phrase or modifier, thus just giving the illusion of wrongness?

        This is actually how I feel about many sentences, if you can make any sense of what I just said, though I don’t have the linguistic chops to explain exactly how I feel that “incorrect” sentence fragment is operating. Feel me?

        I’ve clearly written a ton here. If you want to respond, feel free to quote little parts of what I said so we can make some order out of this chaos. My apologies!

        Matt

        Reply
        • I wish I had time to address all this! You’ve clearly put time and thought into it. But alas, I don’t. Just a few quick tips:

          -Pick a style guide, learn it, follow it. Chicago Manual of Style is my recommendation, but it depends on your field. When you know “the rules” you can break them confidently and in ways that work beautifully. Check out the CMOS forums here: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/forum.html

          -Academic writing is a whole nother ball game. I’m from academia (lol) and the same rules apply. My academic (background BA/MA English) is partly why I write about this stuff. I also edit academic journal articles and dissertations occasionally. Yes, academic writing features much longer sentences, but it uses the same rules, in general. (Not that it’s always perfect! But any journal article is usually in great shape rule-wise.)

          -“This is actually how I feel about many sentences, if you can make any sense of what I just said, though I don’t have the linguistic chops to explain exactly how I feel that “incorrect” sentence fragment is operating. Feel me?”

          I get it. I probably made similar arguments in my early college years. Linguistics classes drove me nuts. But by the time I finished grad school, I had seen the light. I was horrified to find a couple errors in my thesis! Heavens! (My adviser didn’t catch my incorrect semi-colon use in a few instances.)

          My motto: know the rules and then break them. Your writing and readers will love you for it.

          Reply

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