Comma use with introductory elements

The punctuation rule we’ll discuss in this post is the use of a comma after an introductory element in a sentence. It builds on the immediate previous posts in exploring the confusion around comma use and some basic rules to keep in mind. It is actually a visit to one of my earliest posts, “Do I always need a comma after an introductory element?”

Comma use with introductory elements is the second of the 3 Fundamental Comma Rules in my free guide-available on my homepage. (It is also the second most common error in a list of Top Twenty mistakes in writing, which we’ll look at later in this post.)

An introductory element is something that appears at the beginning of a sentence and thus introduces it.

All sorts of words or word groups can introduce or begin a sentence, from a single word or short phrase to a clause:

short phrase: In 1865, the Civil War ended.

clause: When the Civil War ended in 1865, northern photographers extensively documented the fallen Confederate strongholds.

The traditional rule is to use commas to separate introductory elements from the main sentence. For example, writing guides usually say to use a comma after every introductory element—whether word, phrase or clause—to clarify where it ends and the rest of the sentence begins.

Traditional rules tend to be prescriptive—telling you what you should do—rather than descriptive –telling what you already do in practice. These conventions or rules are seen as providing a standard of communication and as helping to prevent errors and misunderstandings.

Missing a comma after an introductory element is the second most common error as identified in a large-scale study by Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford published in 2008. (This study built on earlier 1986 research, “The Twenty Most Common Errors,” by Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors, authors of one of my favorite handbooks, The Everyday Writer.)

The studies focused on college writing patterns, but in my teaching, I have found similar errors in adult writers. (The 2008 research was presented in Top Twenty and we have looked at other top twenty errors in other blog posts.)

Though the items or errors on the lists have changed somewhat over time, both studies identified errors that are the most likely to attract readers’ negative attention. The error or missing a comma after an introductory element appears at the top of both lists. That’s why it’s important to understand the rule.

While the use or omission of a comma after an introductory element may not be as controversial as the serial comma discussed in this essay, its use can also be a matter of style: many people elect not to use it.

However, it is generally agreed that

A comma is optional with small elements,

but a comma is required with adverb clauses,

and a comma is always required to prevent misreading.

As Lunsford and Connors write, “you’re never wrong if you do use a comma after an introductory element” (11).

(Resources: Lunsford and Connors, The Everyday Writer; Lunsford and Lunsford, Top Twenty)

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