Like the unit you have just completed, this unit is partly a review of what you already know from your work in Chapter 2, but it also introduces a new idea.

Earlier we were interested primarily in how to make embedded sentences. Now let’s look at how to punctuate them.

Example (a) is typical of the kind of embedded sentence you’ve already been dealing with. Please punctuate it.

(a) Pierre-Auguste Renoir who was born in 1841 never wanted to be known as a painter of modern life.

If you set off who was born in 1841 with two commas, you’re correct. This is the classic embedded sentence. In sentences like example (a) you have a clear subject—Pierre-Auguste Renoir— that is easily understood by the reader without the embedded information. In other words, who was born in 1841 is extra information. It’s interesting perhaps, but you don’t need it in order to know what the subject of the sentence is; it’s clear that the subject is Pierre-Auguste Renoir. When you have embedded information that is extra, meaning that you don’t need it in order to identify the subject of the sentence, then you always set off that extra embedded information with two commas.

But there’s another kind of sentence in which the embedded information is necessary to identify the subject. Look at this example and draw a wavy line under the embedded clause:

(b) All men who are irrationally and excessively submissive to their wives can be described as uxorious.

If you want to figure out if the embedded information is merely extra and not needed to identify the subject of the sentence, just omit it for a moment. Then you’ll have: All men can be described as uxorious. That’s not true, is it? If this rather odd and interesting word uxorious means “irrationally and excessively submissive to one’s wife,” then certainly you can’t describe “all men” as uxorious.

In other words, the subject in (b) is not simply All men. The subject is really All men who are irrationally and excessively submissive to their wives. It’s a particular kind of man the writer is talking about. The embedded words are not extra information added as an interesting aside after the subject. The embedded clause is so important that it can be considered part of the subject itself. Because of that, it should not be set off with two commas.

Here’s another way to say this: If the subject of the main clause is clear and easy to identify without the embedded information, surround the embedded clause with two commas. If the embedded information is needed to make sense of the subject of the main clause, don’t use any commas.

Let’s look at a few more examples before you do the exercises. Make a decision about each of the following sentences. Two commas or none? Take your time.

(a) My parents who are worried about everything going just right should start planning their trip abroad as early as possible.

(b) Travelers who are worried about everything going just right should start planning their trip abroad as early as possible.

(c) My very best friend who loves to find old dishes at bargain prices would really go for this store.

(d) Anyone who loves to find old dishes at bargain prices would really go for this store.

Examples (a) and (c) each require two commas. Examples (b) and (d) should have no commas. It’s important to realize that in (a) and (c) you’re not using the embedded information to identify the subject of the main clause. In other words, it’s not as if you have two or more sets of parents and you want to be sure that the reader knows you’re referring to the particular set of parents who are going on a trip soon. The same goes for (c): No matter what he or she loves to find at bargain prices, you have only one very best friend. The subjects My parents and My very best friend are clear and specific without the embedded information that follows them.

An important reminder

Remember, when you drop out the embedded information, you are trying to see whether it is needed or not needed in order to make sense of the subject. You are not trying to see how important the embedded clause is in relationship to the overall meaning of the sentence. Keep your eyes on the subject of the main clause!

Exercise 3.2

Draw a wavy line below the embedded clause in each sentence and write s over the subject of the main clause. Then make your decision to insert either two commas or none.

1. St. Nicholas who was a fourth-century bishop in Asia Minor is the patron saint of children and sailors.

2. The dog who guarded the gates of Hades in ancient mythology was the three-headed Cerberus.

3. Janet Reno who became U.S. Attorney General shortly before the cult-related tragedy in Texas was praised for her wilingness to take responsibility for her decisions.

4. The person who wrote the Oz books probably remains unknown even to many of the biggest fans of his work. (The Oz series was written by L. Frank Baum.)

5. The average child who is between two and three years of age does not really know how to play with other children.