I'm an active user of another Stack Exchange site and regularly visit the close vote queue. When a particular filter has been cleared I see the following text:

There are no items for you to review, matching the filter "[tag]"

The comma in this sentence does not make sense to me. Commas are supposed to represent a pause in a sentence. I would find it to be more natural to say it all in one go.

There are no items for you to review matching the filter "[tag]"

Before I write up a meta post for the developers to fix this I want to make sure my assumptions are correct.

Can someone confirm/deny that this is proper English and give an explanation?

  • 2
    It feels wrong. It's confusing to read and weird to say. I agree that it doesn't make sense gramatically, either. – jocap Jan 5 '15 at 21:03
  • 5
    Honestly, I like the use of that to join the two parts, but still clearly emphasizing the first: There are no items for you to review that match the filter – K - Jan 5 '15 at 21:03
  • 1
    @K-, I would happily accept that as an alternative. – gunr2171 Jan 5 '15 at 21:08

There are very few really hard-and-fast rules when it comes to commas in English.

However, commas are there for a reason: to aid the reader in parsing the sentences he is currently reading by splitting them up into logical chunks that give hints as to what belongs together with what, and where the sentence would be broken up with pauses in speech. This particular comma seems rather more likely to cause confusion than aid the reader in doing any such thing.

The way the sentence is phrased and punctuated, “matching the filter [tag]” looks like it ought to be a partipial adjunct, a detached modifier to an element earlier in the clause. Normally, such adjuncts modify the closest noun phrase that can be interpreted as a subject:

She came walking down the street, singing a little tune.

Singing here moves back through the sentence to the nearest subject, she, and modifies it; the structure is equivalent to:

She [singing a little tune] came walking down the street.

. Similarly, a plausible (though semantically nonsensical) reading of your sentence here is:

There are no items for you [matching the filter ‘tag’] to review.

– which implies that you are the one matching the filter “[tag]”. This is of course not the intended meaning—the items are the ones who match (or don’t match, as is the case here) the filter, not you.

Removing the comma does not utterly unambiguously force the correct reading of the sentence, but it does make it more likely, since one of the key features of free-standing participial adjuncts in speech is that they are set off by a pause (and thus in writing usually also by commas). Removing the commas (and, by extension probably also the pause) at least reduces ambiguity, as you correctly intuitively identified.

An even better way to make sure that the sentence is read as unambiguously as possible would be to ‘reattach’ the modifier and place it inside the sentence, right next to the element it modifies. I would also add a currently, just because I think it sounds better given the context. So I would suggest that you suggest that the phrase be rephrased to:

There are currently no items matching the filter “[tag]” for you to review.

Or alternatively, as K suggests in a comment, use a relative clause (in either position):

There are currently no items that match the filter “[tag]” for you to review.
There are currently no items for you to review that match the filter “[tag]”.

  • I do like the last suggestion, where the "[tag]" is at the end. Often the filter listing can get long and having it as the end would make the most sense. Take for example: There are no items for you to review, matching the filter "off-topic, unclear what you're asking, too broad, primarily opinion-based; [security]" – gunr2171 Jan 5 '15 at 21:16
  • Yes; the major problem is not comma-or-no-comma but the ordering of the parts of the sentence. The suggestions are a vast improvement. But with something like: 'There is a serious and recurring fault in the upper left-branching spiral section of the high-flux reverse polarity servo-condensing coil, that you must fix within the next few hours.' I think I'd risk the comma for clarification. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '15 at 22:47
  • @EdwinAshworth In your example, I think I’d just try to be human and split it up entirely: “There is a serious and recurring fault that you must fix within the next few hours. It’s in the upper left-branching thingamajig of the whatsits at the blipbloppetybloop coil”. (Did I get the technical terminology right?) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 '15 at 0:54
  • @Janus I'm sure there are occasions when the messy-but-necessary-for-clarification comma will be necessary. It's best to avoid it where possible of course, but your excellent 'There are very few really hard-and-fast rules when it comes to commas in English' seems to need rolling out every time we get a question including 'Is this comma usage correct?' or the equivalent. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 6 '15 at 1:35

I kind of like the comma even though it may not be grammatical. The second half of the sentence qualifies the first and the other option is to put it in brackets if you wish to express it as such.

  • While I understand your reasoning, I disagree that it is easier to say. From a technical point, it seems logical to separate the parts of the sentence, but I don't think it's right to do it in this case. – gunr2171 Jan 5 '15 at 20:56
  • 1
    I dislike the comma here on roughly the same grounds; that it makes it read like a parenthetical clause that could have been put in brackets, when really it isn't. A good rule of thumb with any parenthetical clause is to imagine it taken out; if the sentence is sensible but less useful then it's a good parenthetical clause, if the sentence is better then it's a bad parenthetical clause so keep it out permanently, and if the sentence no longer has the meaning you intended then it's not parenthetical. Taking out this clause changes the meaning considerably, so it's better as not parenthetical. – Jon Hanna Jan 6 '15 at 2:45

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