Comma "pause" question


A friend and I were playing Trivial Pursuit when we came across this question: "What Jack Nicholson film had a pair of glasses in a goldfish pond key to its plot?"  This game in particular is quite old, so the wording isn't as contemporary.  I struggled over reading the question aloud and suggested that I thought it should have a comma after "pond."  It would then read: "What Jack Nicholson film had a pair of glasses in a goldfish pond, key to its plot?"


I wasn't saying that the first iteration was incorrect, I just thought a comma would help its flow.  The friend said that the comma would make it grammatically incorrect.   He went on to say something along the lines that one part of the sentence needed to stand on its own.  If "key to its plot" was removed, for example, then the first part would stand on its own, but "key to its plot" was integral to the point.


One site I found stated that, "Any comma essentially represents a pause – one that gives your readers the signal to take a quick breath before continuing with the next portion of the sentence."  I honestly wasn't sure in this situation, and the examples weren't helping me with this particular sentence.


Thanks ;]

comma pause asked Jul 14 '14 at 18:56 Adam New member

2 answers


It's a bit disconcerting to have a game that came out as I was graduating from college described as "quite old" because that means I'm at least two decades older than "quite old."  I thought I was middle-aged, but I guess I am ancient.  I'll try to put that aside, Adam.  ;-)


Yes, the English language continues to change, and a lot can change in thirty years.  But I don't think that basic punctuation rules have changed that much.  (Well, the only-one-space-after-a-period thing has happened in the last thirty years, I'll give you that.) The longer a sentence is, the more difficult it is to follow. 


"A pair of glasses in a goldfish pond" is a very long phrase that is modifying "key".  To make it trivia, you need to know what very specific kind of key.  You couldn't just ask, "What film had a key to its plot?"  The answer would be, "Most films."  Take out the long adjectival phrase, and you can see that there is no comma needed in the sentence.  Even if you put a shorter adjective in, you should still see that no comma is needed.  What Jack Nicholson film had a surprising key to its plot?


The fact that a sentence is too long to speak in one breath is not cause for a comma.  Though you usually pause when there is a comma in a sentence, the opposite is just not true.  People speak in many different ways.  A pause is not a cause for a comma. 


Informally, when you use a very long phrase as an adjective, you can do what I did with hyphens in the parentheses in the second paragraph. 

link answered Jul 15 '14 at 17:11 Patty T Grammarly Fellow

Thanks, Patty. Truth be told, I'm about the same age of this particular version, so I lumped myself in there with "quite old" ;]

AdamJul 15 '14 at 20:37

My grandma was quite old when she passed away last year. She was 103. I'm only half that age - quite young!

Patty TJul 15 '14 at 20:46

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Trivial Pursuit came out when I was a freshman in college.  Groan ;-)

link comment answered Jul 16 '14 at 12:31 Tony Chamberlain New member

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