I'm having a hard time figuring out whether or not to use a comma in the type of situation shown in the examples below:

  1. Jane was concerned that running by herself she might get mugged.
  2. Jane was concerned that running by herself, she might get mugged.
  3. Jane was concerned that, running by herself, she might get mugged.


  1. We knew unless we changed our attitude we were bound to fail.
  2. We knew unless we changed our attitude, we were bound to fail.
  3. We knew, unless we changed our attitude, we were bound to fail.

In the above examples, is 1, 2, or 3 right?

Normally, if "running by herself" and "unless we changed our attitude" started a sentence, they would be separated from the main clause for being a participle and a subordinate clause, respectively. However, I'm having a hard time finding an answer regarding comma usage when these come later in the sentence. Logically, I think the answer should be 3, but very often and in normally very grammatical sources, I see it written like either 1 or 2. Also, I can especially see how 2 might be accurate because the the comma separation looks as if it divides the verb in the main clause from its subject, and particularly in the latter, the information provided isn't parenthetical but necessary to the operation of the sentence.

Sorry for the long spiel, but I felt I needed to describe the situation sufficiently because I don't have a name for it. If I had a name for it, maybe I could have found the answer.

Anyway, if you could possibly either give a rationale or a source that backs up your answer, that would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  • I think the title, if possible, needs to be a bit more descriptive. – Mari-Lou A Jan 7 '16 at 11:07

Technically speaking the correct answer for both, if you are going to use commas, would be option 3. Imagine that the dependent clause 'running by herself' was in parenthesis - essentially what you are doing by transplanting it to the middle of a sentence - and treat it in the same way. You need to both open and close the 'parenthetical' information.

Option 1 for both is also 'fine' and you will see it a lot, as you say, in respected publications.

Also, as Jeanne Bates' answer indicates, you could reword the sentences to negate any need for commas. She is wrong to state that sentence no.2 is correct though. In both your examples, option 2 shows a comma splice.

  • Thanks for the response. That's how I was leaning. Maybe I can stop second-guessing myself about it now. – Benjamin Harman Jan 7 '16 at 11:44

I call the overuse of commas "comma-bundant." That's only one problem. The other problem is poor sentence structure (like "Throw daddy down the steps his hat").

The Jane running sentence? I would use this: Jane was concerned she might get mugged when she was running by herself.

The attitude sentence? I would use this: We knew we were bound to fail unless we changed our attitude.

If I used the original sentences, these would be my choices: Jane - No. 1; Attitude - No. 2.

My reply is from personal experience at law firms (word processing) and editing documents given to me for correction.

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