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Is a comma required when there are two adverbial phrases introducing a sentence? Like so:

One day, after I had my breakfast, the postman came.

Or is it fine to omit the first comma?

One day after I had my breakfast, the postman came.

Same way:

In the olden days, in Rome, people were nice.

Vs

In the olden days in Rome, people were nice.

I have searched for examples but couldn't come to a conclusion—in spite of it being possibly a common occurance.

  • I'd be surprised if this isn't a duplicate. Hint: if you remove the second phrase and say the sentence, then parse the two phrases together -- no pause, will it change the intended meeting? (Were people only nice in Rome?) – SrJoven Aug 8 '14 at 6:33
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I agree in general with Edwin Ashworth's answer, but perhaps the reader is looking for a less learned explanation. If so, I offer this:

The difference between "One day, after I had my breakfast, the postman came" and "One day after I had my breakfast, the postman came" is that in the first instance "one day" is there to indicate the time frame of the entire action of the sentence: On one and the same day, (1) "I had my breakfast," and then (2) "the postman came." But in the second instance, "one day" is the interval between the two main actions in the sentence: "I had my breakfast," and then, one day afterward, "the postman came."

The difference between the two Rome sentences is far less significant, in my opinion. I suppose that "In the olden days, in Rome, people were nice" separates "in Rome" from direct attachment to the preceding phrase "In the olden days," so that it is arguably free to attach to the following "people" instead. But if there is a substantive difference between the ideas expressed by

In the olden days in Rome, people were nice.

and

In the olden days, people in Rome were nice.

it is pitched at a level of nuance beyond my poor powers to apprehend. The conclusion I would draw from your two pairs of examples is that sometimes the phrase-splitting comma has a large and fundamental effect on sentence meaning, while at other times its effect on sentence meaning is effectively zero.

2

Note the gross difference between

One day after I had taken my mother back to Hawkshead, the car broke down.

and

One day, after I had taken my mother back to Hawkshead(,) the car broke down.

Though the 'one day after' reading would be considered unlikely (by many) with the breakfast reference, the more natural use of the comma is indicated by the examples above.

With the temporal + locative adverbial chain, the adverbials do not really interact in such a way as to give (grossly) different possible meanings. The choice to include the comma between them can now be made merely to indicate whether or not the writer wishes to signal a pause between them as they are read. This can be used to emphasise one or the other of the adverbials, or neither. For instance, do they wish to emphasise Rome's olden days (as opposed to its present) - in which case the comma would most likely be dropped, and olden days stressed when spoken. Though italics would be needed to show this intended emphasis in print (or in Rome if the emphasis was on the locative).

  • Some of the above is true, but doesn't address the questions asked (which, granted, are vague). Also, the claim “Though the 'one day after' reading is not sensible with the breakfast reference” is unclear and untrue. Unclear: the phrase “the 'one day after' reading” is ambiguous and non-specific. Untrue: Suppose the speaker eats breakfast infrequently, or on occasion holds a prayer breakfast, etc. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 7 '14 at 18:54
  • How does "the 'one day after' reading is not sensible with the breakfast reference" [sic if you like] not address the first question? Your second point has some merit, but if we're going to take small probabilities into account, perhaps we should include that 'day' is sometimes used in a non-literal way. Some restrictions on what can be considered sensible almost always have to be made. I've adjusted the answer, but wonder why you've adopted this approach rather than giving a better answer yourself. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 7 '14 at 20:57
  • The reason I didn't give a better answer is I didn't have one prepared. I think your answer has the proper germs in it but it seems vague, wishy-washy, and ambiguous. Ie it should be more explicit, to the point, and clear. Eg, instead of “would be considered unlikely (by many) with the breakfast reference” perhaps say “is inconsistent with daily breakfasts”. Phrase the “With the temporal...” sentence positively rather than negatively. Etc. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 7 '14 at 21:28
  • 'The reason I didn't give a better answer is I didn't have one.' You seem to think you do – just modify mine: instead of “would be considered unlikely (by many) with the breakfast reference” perhaps say “is inconsistent with daily breakfasts”. Phrase the “With the temporal...” sentence positively rather than negatively. Etc. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 7 '14 at 21:30
  • Part of your recent comment looks familiar :) – James Waldby - jwpat7 Sep 7 '14 at 21:32
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One day, ... Seems to connote a non-specific day after the event.

One day after ... Seems to mean on the day that the event occurred.

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