A Single Comma

It is not entirely correct to talk about theory being one thing and practice another. It’s closer to the truth to say that theory and practice are two sides of the same coin, obverse and reverse, complementing each other in whatever we do. Which would mean that to study the theory of grammar is inevitably to worry over its effects in the real world, in the writing we produce and read day in and day out—even in so common and consequential a form as headlines in the news.

Word broke recently that Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was seeking parole for the 1968 murder. Here are the headlines from three news outlets announcing that fact. Keep your eye on the prepositional phrase with no opposition:

Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of Robert F. Kennedy assassination, seeks parole with no opposition from prosecutors (The Washington Post, online August 25, 2021)

RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan is seeking parole with no opposition from prosecutors (Yahoo News, online August 21, 2021)

RFK assassin Sirhan B. Sirhan seeks parole for the 16th time, with no opposition from prosecutors (NBC Newsline, online August 26, 2021)

A prepositional phrase is a group of words which begins a preposition (with) and ends with a noun (opposition), and the phrase in its entirety is used as a part of speech, usually an adjective or adverb. The same prepositional phrase can often function as either part of speech, and which role it plays can be determined by the punctuation the writer employs—with quite a difference in meaning. That is what is at issue here.

In the first two headlines, the prepositional phrase with no opposition is connected directly to the noun parole, which means the phrase is meant to stand as an adjective modifying that noun. Adjectives, of course, describe or define a noun more specifically, so parole with no opposition means that the kind of parole being sought is one which prosecutors do not oppose. If I tell you I am looking for a job with health benefits, that’s exactly how I would write it—with no comma between job and the preposition with—so that you understand that including health benefits is a defining characteristic of the particular job I am seeking. So, too, parole with no opposition, which suggests that the kind of parole the prisoner wants is one in which prosecutors consent not to stand in the way. Whether they will do so or not remains to be seen.

The third headline, though, inserts a comma before the same prepositional phrase, and that changes the grammar and meaning entirely. This single comma detaches the phrase from the main clause preceding it, and thereby changes its function from an adjective to an adverb. Whether in the form of a single word, a phrase (as is the case here), or even a clause, adverbs point to the circumstances in which a verb operates. With the prepositional phrase now set off by a comma, this third headline means that prosecutors have in fact agreed not to oppose the prisoner’s parole application, and so the application is proceeding. An adverbial prepositional phrase like this is often put at the beginning of a sentence (With no opposition from prosecutors, RFK assassin Sirhan B. Sirhan seeks parole for the 16th time), but headline writers as journalists want to present the facts first, with qualifying circumstances to follow. The punch is punchier that way.

All of which is to say that the theory of punctuation and grammar can seem (and be) a dreary affair if we don’t remember that its other side is real meaning in the world. There is enough freedom in the art of language to give us a personal choice in how we choose to write and punctuate a sentence. But there are times when what I want to do has to yield to what has to be if what I want to write is contravening the facts. And that sometimes happens with just a single comma.


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1 Comment

  1. Wow! This is a brilliant use of a real example and an excellent analysis. What I love about these entries is that they explain my more intuitive understanding of language. Here I knew the comma made a huge difference but could never have articulated why and how it did so.

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