Punctuating introductory words and phrases.

If you’re like me, lots of your sentences begin with an introductory word or phrase.  It could be a single transition word (e.g., meanwhile), a phrase (e.g., on the other hand), or a dependent clause (e.g., if you’re like me).  But how do you punctuate that introductory word or phrase?

According to most authorities, the general rule is that an introductory word or phrase should be set off by a comma.  For example:

  • Without music, life would be a mistake.  (Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.  (Mark Twain)
  • The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.  (Bob Marley)
  • Meanwhile, the President of the United States has to contend with a possible invasion from Mars.

As with most rules of English, there is an exception to the general “use a comma” rule.  A very short introductory phrase—such as brief modifying phrases involving time (“Yesterday I went to a baseball game” or “In 1955 the Dodgers won the World Series for the first time”)—can appear with or without a comma.  The Scribe, however, prefers the use of commas with all introductory words or phrases, so as to avoid the seemingly arbitrary application of the rule (how long does the phrase need to be before a comma is needed?  Three words?  Four?).  This avoids comma-use drama—at least in this application.

That is all for now …

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