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Do I need commas around "on that morning"? While technically correct (I believe), it just seems like so many commas sounds too choppy if one pauses at each comma.

As they passed the cathedral, they rode alongside the River Irwell, which, on that morning, had a thick layer of fog blanketing the black waters.

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    That sentence sounds like it came from a 19th century novel, where it was punctuated properly for its time. I'd recommend they be left out in the 21st century. – Peter Shor Aug 15 '14 at 13:59
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You can dispense with most of the commas in that sentence. You should keep the comma before which, as the usual style is to put a comma before a non-restrictive relative clause, and there is no reason to make an exception here. You could also put an (optional) comma after "cathedral", as when you're speaking there's a pause there, and style guides suggest putting a comma after an introductory clause in sentences. (Exceptions should be made for short prepositional phrases; this one is long enough that a comma is probably better.) I don't see any real reason to set off "on that morning" with commas, although doing so wouldn't be ungrammatical. However, adding those two extra commas makes the sentence very choppy.

This gives:

As they passed the cathedral, they rode alongside the River Irwell, which on that morning had a thick layer of fog blanketing the black waters.

  • Very choppy, or a deliberate metre. – Sam Aug 16 '14 at 11:46
  • Deliberate...from a novel based in 1904. – user87888 Aug 16 '14 at 13:47
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You don't need them. You can keep them if you want to imply that it is a parenthetical element: a part of a sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of that sentence.

As they passed the cathedral, they rode alongside the River Irwell which, on that morning, had a thick layer of fog blanketing the black waters.

You can do without them if you feel that it is essential (it is a judgement call) or if you consider it just as a temporal adverb, which it probably is. You can drop all commas you like, and leave just the one after cathedral. A comma is necessary there (and not 'optional', as suggested in another answer) as the subordinate clause precedes the main one see here.

As they passed the cathedral, they rode alongside the River Irwell which on that morning had a thick layer of fog blanketing the black waters.

This solution gives a brisk pace to the narration. It is a matter of taste; I suppose you are the author.

The comma before 'which' is another example of parenthetical element, but is more tricky. The difference between non/restrictive relative clause refers to adjectival clauses

(1) The builder, who erects very fine houses, will make a large profit. (non-restrictive)
(2) The builder who erects very fine houses will make a large profit. (restrictive)

You can see that in sentence (1) the clause is enclosed by commas, (commas act as parentheses, hence: parenthetical element) , and that is why it is call 'adjectival' Here the relative clause is not adjectival: non-restrictive/parenthetical clauses are usually embedded in the main clause, and, moreover, it constitutes a relevant part of the sentence, try to suppress it and see what happens! Therefore the comma it is not necessary, and can be omitted expecially if you omit the commas around 'on that morning'. In fact the whole clause is surely more essential than one of its parts.

As they passed the cathedral, they rode alongside the River Irwell, (which on that morning had a thick layer of fog blanketing the black waters).

In this version of the sentence, suggested in another answer, the adverbial (phrase) 'on that morning' is considered more essential than the whole clause, which is rather odd.

In literature, where commas are also used to convey rhythm and emotions, you have a wide range of possibilities.

  • Why do you think "on that morning" is a parenthetical element and "as they passed the cathedral" is not? Both of these phrases can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence. (As can the word "thick", which should clearly not be called a parenthetical element; this definition of "parenthetical element" is rather useless.) I'd recommend keeping just two commas in this sentence: after "cathedral" and before "which". – Peter Shor Aug 15 '14 at 14:10
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    @PeterShor, ""(As can the word "thick..."",then go ahead, write your answer and put two nice commas around ,thick,! – user88080 Aug 15 '14 at 14:41

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