".. and these flashes of light happened most frequently when he was hunched over it in the hour before bedtime, struggling with the right way to say something.."

On strict grammatical terms, is the comma optional after bedtime?

2 Answers 2


Adverbial participle and verbless clauses without a subordinator are subjectless supplementative clauses. They work like nonrestrictive clauses, i.e. can be omitted because they usually describes, but don't further define, the antecedent. The implied subject in the supplementive clause provides a link with the matrix clause. The comma is needed to signal this relationship. Without comma, the subject of the verb might become ambiguous (subject 'he' or object 'it'), and it can result in the possible neutralization of the difference between nonfinite clauses functioning as supplementive clauses and those functioning as complementation of the verb.

Strictly speaking, its optionality depends on what you want to say.

He hunched over it, struggling.

He hunched over it struggling.

  • There seems to be a sizable unattributed quote from Quirk et al here. Sep 4, 2017 at 21:30
  • But it does have a subject. Here struggling clearly refers back to he.
    – Anonym
    Sep 4, 2017 at 21:36
  • 1
    @ Anonym The clause itself is subjectless Sep 5, 2017 at 14:00

Given that you begin the sentence with an ellipses (though this should really be three dots and not two...) and the word '...and', I'm guessing the sentence is much longer to begin with? I would suggest the comma is there as a natural pause in the sentence, a way for a reader - or speaker - to get their breath back as they read. It's all about rhythm, pace and flow in writing, especially fiction writing which I assume this is.

In this instance, it seems to be separating a dependant clause.

"Commas are often used to separate clauses. In English, a comma is used to separate a dependent clause from the independent clause if the dependent clause comes first: After I fed the cat, I brushed my clothes. (Compare this with I brushed my clothes after I fed the cat.)" --Wikipedia

In any event, it's always worth reading these things without the comma (or other punctuation mark) to see how it 'sounds' in your head. Or out loud.

  • Well, "struggling with the right way to say something" isn't independent. So would it be safe to say that the comma is there technically because the end clause is nonessential or free modifying? I'm looking for a technical answer that is set in stone. If there isn't one, then is the comma basically optional? Sep 4, 2017 at 20:08

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