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Are there any firm rules for separating a participle phrase with a comma? I rarely place a participle phrases close to the noun it modifies and wonder whether a comma is required.

Do either of these sentences require a comma?

In their dressing gowns, Rose and Martin stand by the window (,) watching the scene unchanged from the night before: the storm continues.

Rose and Martin watch the storm, not the window, but I think that would be understood.

They view the top of the cliffs where scores of youths are positioned (,) using the advantage of height for an aerial bombardment of rocks.

Here there is no object or indirect object, so I think the comma is unnecessary.

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The first one is clearer with the comma. Why leave it out? The second one is clearer without the comma, as with the comma one might think that "they" rather than the "youths" are using the advantage of height. –  Peter Shor Apr 19 '13 at 13:04
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Most times, the comma is for clarity than for grammar. Grammar does not prescribe punctuation per se. –  Kris Apr 19 '13 at 14:45

2 Answers 2

The first sentence requires a comma, whereas the second does not.

In their dressing gowns, Rose and Martin stand by the window (,) watching the scene unchanged from the night before: the storm continues.

Omitting the comma here would mean the window is watching the scene. The comma clarifies that Rose and Martin and watching. (Not that one could imagine a window watching a scene, but try replacing window with a dog/cat).

They view the top of the cliffs where scores of youths are positioned (,) using the advantage of height for an aerial bombardment of rocks.

The comma is redundant here since adding or removing it does not alter the meaning of the sentence.

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There has to be a better way to write this.

How bout: Rose and Martin stood in their dressing gowns, peering out the window and watching the storm replicate all night.

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Thanks, Peter Shor. You have subtlely changed the meaning of the sentence in your suggestion as the scene was "unchanged from the night before" i.e., they didn't watch all night. –  RoDaSm Apr 19 '13 at 14:18

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