Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Comma Before An Infinitive Phrase Indicates Result, Not Purpose

The following rules may be archaic. (They come from Ruge Rules, assembled by GTOTD recipient Paul Piazza. They comprise the grammar wisdom of Ferdinand E. Ruge, who was in his 70s or 80s when he taught me and several GTOTD subscribers in 1972.)

In contemporary usage, these rules have probably been superseded by Harbrace Rule 12e, "Occasionally a comma may be needed for ease in reading." Nevertheless, it's edifying to know the fine distinction below, even if it doesn't come into practice much.

The Rules: Place a comma before an infinitive phrase that expresses result or an unplanned/unanticipated fact.

Do not use a comma before an infinitive phrase that expresses purpose.

With the bases loaded, he hit a home run, to make the score 12-0. (The infinitive phrase expresses result.)

They returned early from vacation to ready their house for the arrival of important guests. (Expressing purpose.)

They returned from vacation on June 4, to find their house in ruins. (Unplanned/unanticipated fact.)

He intercepted a pass and zigzagged down the field for 43 yards, only to be downed on the 4-yard line. (Same as above.)

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