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I wanted to clarify whether comma usage was mandated, optional, or not allowed in cases where the phrase at the beginning could be moved later into the sentence. I realize this is not the best description so let me give two examples:

The next day [?] I went to the beach.   (I went to the beach the next day.)

Together [?] we drank juice.  (We drank juice together.)

In both cases, the section on the left can be moved into the sentence where a comma would definitely not be needed (and sound awkward).

My feeling is that for the sentences on the left, in both cases a comma is optional, but not necessary. Is this correct? If the first sentence was "The very next day", would it change things? I've heard for some phrases if the length is above three words then a comma is recommended.

EDIT: While someone has indicated this a possible duplicate, I feel the referenced article does not clearly answer my questions here. You can see from the comments in this post the answer is not trivial.

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Skooba, tchrist Mar 22 '17 at 0:12

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    Your three-word rule is a good start. What ensures that the sentence is clear? The juice sentence cannot go wrong with or without the comma. The beach sentence could set up a different meaning if you leave out the comma (using next or very next): The next day I went to the beach, rain ruined the day. So, keep the comma after 'day.' – Yosef Baskin Mar 20 '17 at 20:16
  • @YosefBaskin: Thanks for the feedback. I agree that adding a comma can clarify certain situations where there is more content after "the beach" before the period, but I am concerned just for now where the period is directly after "the beach". If so, then I guess the comma is not necessary, right? – Locksleyu Mar 20 '17 at 20:47
  • Yes. "One sunny Monday, I gardened. The next day, I went to the beach." You do not want the comma in the longer version. It means "On the next that I took a trip to the beach, the rains came." – Yosef Baskin Mar 20 '17 at 20:53
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    When an initial constituent is quite long like this one, you would likely use a comma after it just to make sure the intonation changes. Normally when it's short you wouldn't, though, because the intonation doesn't change with a short initial phrase. – John Lawler Mar 20 '17 at 21:08
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    With 'The next day I went to the beach.' choice of comma or not is purely dictated by whether or not you'd like to indicate a pause after 'day'. There is no issue of clarification / disambiguation. With 'Together [?] we drank juice.' the comma may play a disambiguating role. 'Together we drank juice.' = 'We drank juice together.' But 'Together, we drank juice.' may have the same meaning, or may set 'together' off as an absolute adjective (compare 'Together at last, we drank juice.') – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '17 at 21:17
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'The next day' really means 'on the next day' -- this is clearly not an appositive of 'I', but it could be restrictive: '[On] the next day [that] I went to the beach {it rained}'. This is called a "garden path", since you may be mislead until you realize that the only verb is 'went', so '[that]' is excluded. The garden path can be avoided by using the comma, which clearly marks '[on] the next day' as adverbial. Commas are typically elided when they add no information; ie, when other rules disambiguate the grammar.

  • Thanks for the answer. I understand how it is good to add the comma if "that" or "it rained" were in the sentence. But my example sentence contains neither. Therefore, it is not the case that the comma is not needed? – Locksleyu Mar 20 '17 at 22:20
  • It is not strictly needed, because you will soon discover that 'went' is the only verb, but it does prevent your brain from having to consider an alternative path, and for that reason I would use it. If the adverbial was 'yesterday' then the comma would be superfluous, because 'yesterday' is definite and needs no restriction. – AmI Mar 20 '17 at 22:26
  • Understood, thanks for an excellent explanation of this complex topic! – Locksleyu Mar 20 '17 at 22:44

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