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This is the sentence from a newspaper:

Gu Kailai, wife of a Chinese politician at the centre of a major scandal, did not deny murdering a British man during her one-day trial that ended on Thursday with no verdict, a court official said.

It seems like there should have been a comma after ‘wife of Chinese politician’ and another one after ‘a British man’. Please correct me if I am wrong.

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"I see that commas are not placed correctly" is a rather bold statement to make with no supporting evidence. Please provide justification for each comma you want to add to the original quote. Then, rather than fixing this one particular case, we can address the actual flaw in your reasoning. Teaching to fish vs. giving a fish, you know. (And if you can't justify either comma, then this becomes a non-question.) –  RegDwigнt Aug 9 '12 at 12:54
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6 Answers

The original sentence is correct.

The appositive which modifies Gu Kulai is the entire phrase "wife of a Chinese politician at the center of a major scandal". You do not need a comma anywhere in that phrase, and it would be incorrect to add one. It is, however, correct to add a comma at the end of the appositive, which is exactly what we see above.

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What about comma after 'British man'. It more sounds like she killed the man during her one-day trial. –  Priya Aug 9 '12 at 12:46
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@Priya ❶ Because that would be an extremely unlikely scenario. ❷ Because a comma won’t change where a prepositional phrase like that attaches. ❸ Because that would change the overall sentence into a mere catenation of spliced-together phrases: it would no longer read sensibly from a purely structural point of view. –  tchrist Aug 9 '12 at 12:54
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❷ is absolutely crucial. You can parse the sentence either way with or without the comma. –  RegDwigнt Aug 9 '12 at 12:58
    
All that said, Priya did point out a rather humorous ambiguity (which would need to be fixed with a rewrite, not a comma). –  J.R. Aug 9 '12 at 16:53
    
During her one-day trial that ended on Thursday with no verdict, Gu Kailai, wife of a Chinese politician at the centre of a major scandal, did not deny murdering a British man, the court official said. –  Adnan Aug 9 '12 at 18:25
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It appears from glancing news articles that her husband the politician is considered the center of scandal, so the first phrase is correct without the comma.

The second phrase would not benefit from a comma. Consider a different example:

She denied murdering a British man during a business meeting on Tuesday.

She denied murdering a British man, during a business meeting on Tuesday.

What happened during the business meeting on Tuesday - a murder or a denial? Neither sentence gives you any clue, and the comma doesn't help. In fact, in the second example it feels flat out unnatural.

The phrase in the original sentence seems pretty clear to me given the context. But if you were worried about ambiguity, it would be necessary to reword the sentence, not chuck in extra commas.

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Whether or not a comma is necessary after "wife of a Chinese politician" depends on the facts of the case.

"Gu Kailai, wife of a Chinese politician at the centre of a major scandal" means that there is a Chinese politician at the centre of a major scandal, and Gu Kailai is his wife.

"Gu Kailai, wife of a Chinese politician, at the centre of a major scandal" means that Gu Kailai is at the centre of a major scandal, and is the wife of a Chinese politician.

The second half of the sentence is common newspaperese...

Smith denied murdering a man at Guildford Crown Court

meaning he uttered the denial at Guildford Crown Court, rather than that the murder occurred at Guildford Crown Court and Smith denied it somewhere else.

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In Larry Trask’s words, ‘a pair of bracketing commas is used to mark off a weak interruption of the sentence’. That is exactly what wife . . . scandal is, because it could be removed and still leave a sentence that made good sense. Thus commas before wife and after scandal are well used. A court official said is also a weak interruption, which can be indicated by a comma before a, but a pair is not required when the interruption, as here, comes at the end of the sentence.

One more comma is required. That . . . verdict is a relative clause. We must suppose that there was only one one-day trial that ended on Thursday. That makes the relative clause a supplementary (or non-defining or non-restrictive) relative clause, and it is customary to set off such relative clauses with a comma, in this case before that.

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There's a lot wrong with this sentence, but more commas won't fix it.

It's bad writing because it tries to pack a single sentence with more propositions than good newspaper style will comfortably bear; in consequence it not only reads awkwardly, it also creates the ambiguities noted by Brian and Lynn and omits the important fact that the Bo Kulai is charged, inter alia, with obstruction of justice for failing to report his knowledge of his wife's crime.

It's bad journalism because in order to put the most sensational content first it banishes the only new fact it reports - that a 'court official' alleged &c - to the very end of the sentence.

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This sentence reads okay with the commas as they are. It is typical of the one sentence news article summary. In my experience news summaries are often convoluted and sometimes can be read to mean valid different meanings. Don't expect to pick up great tips on language from newspapers. This particular sentence could be broken up to improve understanding and flow but, there's technically nothing wrong with it and where the commas are.

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