Comma Quandary: The #3 Sentence Opener

Mar 03, 2016 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

An essential part of using IEW’s stylish sentence openers is knowing when and where to add commas. In response to a customer question, Pamela White, Accomplished IEW Instructor and author of the fabulous Fix-It! Grammar series, explains the rule for placement of commas after a #3 sentence opener (an -ly adverb). Happily, she then provides a simple trick for how to implement the rule.

Question: When a sentence starts with an -ly adverb, does it need a comma?

#3 openers take commas only when they modify the whole sentence. When the ly–adverb modifies just the verb, it doesn't need a comma.

So, how can you tell which it modifies?

If the #3 opener modifies the whole sentence, you can usually say "It is [adjective version of -ly adverb] that ...."

For example:

Importantly, many #3 openers that modify the sentence will make a comment on the value of what is being stated.

Now apply the test to check: "It is important that many #3 openers..." This works, so the -ly word “Importantly” is modifying the entire sentence and takes a comma.

You can also check if the -ly word modifies the verb by putting it right next to the verb, but most people have a poor ear for this. They might argue in the above example that it makes sense to say "many #3 openers importantly will make a comment..." This is because adverbs can go in many places in a sentence.

The better way to check that the word modifies the verb is to ask if the subject is doing the verb action in that manner. Do "many #3 openers make a comment" in an important manner? No, they don't. So again, "importantly" must be modifying the whole sentence and needs a comma.

Another example:

Rashly he severed the connection.

Is it rash that he severed the connection? Or did he sever it in a rash manner? The latter makes sense, so it must modify the verb and therefore not need a comma.

Fortunately, Ms. White has clarified this comma question. Confidently IEW students will place a comma only after -ly adverb openers that modify the entire sentence. Happily, this comma quandary has been solved!

Pamela White has an M.A. in English and an A.B.D. from Vanderbilt University and has taught English for more than three decades. As IEW’s Online Department Head for Level C, she is certified as an IEW® Accomplished Instructor and is the author of IEW's popular Fix It! Grammar program. Currently living outside of Nashville, Tennessee, she teaches online for IEW while enjoying ongoing writing projects.

For more help with grammar quandaries, check out Ms. White's Fix It! Grammar program.

Live Chat with IEW