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Which one would sound better?

Terrified, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

OR

Terrified John locked the door and switched off the lights.

  • 6
    The only way I can parse the latter is to assume that you are more or less naming him "Terrified John". – Colin Fine Jul 8 '14 at 14:48
  • Yes, that was my concern - not to sound like I'm actually calling him that. So there's no way around it. "Terrified people did..." is fine "Terrified John did..." will never be? – jules Jul 8 '14 at 14:53
  • And I presume that "left handed" is intended to mean "clumsy". Speaking as a left-hander, I would ask you to avoid lateralist language. ;-) – Colin Fine Jul 8 '14 at 19:08
  • @ColinFine. No, it isn't. But I see the point. Let me edit it. – jules Jul 8 '14 at 19:15
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The first one is best, because John is a name and terrified is an adjective describing John. If you don't add a comma, then you're naming him Terrified John.

If you need a grammatical explanation (the rule), then I'll let the other people explain.

  • 2
    -1 for "a explanation", +1 for correcting it. +1 for the answer. (: – Neeku Jul 8 '14 at 14:51
  • But... What about the following sentence: "Terrified John is unbearable John"? – jules Jul 8 '14 at 15:27
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    That sentence doesn't make sense at all. You can say ''(When he is...) Terrified, John is unbearable''. – Archa Jul 8 '14 at 15:34
  • @Archa Am I guessing correctly that I shouldn't put adjectives before names? At the risk of them lumping together? Hence, "I saw intoxicated John" is incorrect and should be I saw John, who was intoxicated"? – jules Jul 8 '14 at 19:21
  • Well, to make sure it makes sense, write ''X was Y''. – Archa Jul 8 '14 at 19:59
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I think the way to think about this is that the word "terrified" is actually the result of ellipsis applied to the phrase "feeling terrified". The implied full sentence is "Feeling terrified, John locked the door and switched off the lights."

A comma should be used because when you say "Terrified, John locked the door" you would insert a brief pause after the word "terrified". Leaving out the comma implies that it shouldn't be spoken with a pause, which as the others have said would mean that the person's name was "Terrified John".

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Poor John locked the door and switched off the lights.

is a similar looking sentence, with the adjective poor modifying John. It is in the attributive position (just before the noun). It does not carry the same sense as 'John was poor / hard up'.

Usually, an article would be needed:

The old caretaker locked the door and switched off the lights.

The proper noun renders the article incorrect here.

But

Terrified, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

uses a different construction; here, the adjective (which need not be participial) is used in an absolute (essentially stand-alone, ie not tightly bound to the noun being modified) construction. It is really a condensed form of two loosely related statements:

John was terrified. He locked the door and switched off the lights.

The comma is needed with such constructions; a certain bulk is also required:

Terrified, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

*/?Wild/Mad, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

Mad with the owners, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

Cold and tired, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

*Cold, John locked the door and switched off the lights.

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