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While researching the use of commas after introductory prepositional phrases, I came across a document from a university in Texas . In the section for prepositional phrases, it stated, "Never place a comma after a phrase that is immediately followed by a verb."

The given example was

"Into the raging river plummeted the raft with its frightened occupants."

Is this a commonly followed guideline? I've never heard it before. Also, is this guideline the case for any introductory phrase or just prepositional phrase?

For example, if I understand the university's guideline correctly, I should not use a comma in the following sentence because the introductory phrase is followed by a verb. (As a side note, my guideline at work is to place a comma after introductory prepositional phrases of four or more words.)

"With the blue feather write each spelling word in the air." (This example is a spelling activity for children.)

But if it were worded this way, it would take a comma:

"With the blue feather, please write each spelling word in the air."

Or, worded as a statement rather than an imperative--in case that matters:

"With the blue feather, the girl will write each spelling word in the air."

Would I use a comma after this introductory phrase, though, which I believe is a participial phrase? Or does the same guideline apply to all introductory phrase, and I should leave the comma out because this phrase is directly followed by a verb?

"Using chalk, write each word on the chalkboard."

Versus wording it this way which does not have a verb following the introductory phrase:

"Using chalk, Harry wrote each word on the chalkboard."

TIA!

  • Please post some more examples showing where the dubious comma is. Only one of your examples has a comma. – Weather Vane Jun 8 '18 at 23:06
  • Sorry to not be very clear. I wanted to verify that a sentence such as the following would not take a comma because the prepositional phrase is followed by a verb: "With the blue feather [prepositional introductory phrase] write [verb] each spelling word in the air." I also wanted to know if other introductory phrases that are followed by verbs should not take commas either. For example "Using chalk [introductory participial phrase?], write [verb] each word on the chalkboard." – Beckylou Jun 8 '18 at 23:10
  • You already posted that sentence in the question. Where would the comma be? Please edit the question itself for more clarity. You ask if you would use commas, but where? – Weather Vane Jun 8 '18 at 23:11
  • I thought that the comma would come after the introductory phrase that ends with the word "feather" because, per my guidelines, it's four words or longer, but now I'm not sure because of what I read about not placing a comma after a phrase that is followed by a verb. I'm trying to verify if that's true, and if it is, does it also stand for other types of introductory phrases, not just prepositional. – Beckylou Jun 8 '18 at 23:16
  • Pleaase don't describe where you think a comma might be - put some actual examples in the question. – Weather Vane Jun 8 '18 at 23:18
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The website you consulted apparently wanted to craft a rule in as few words as possible. It didn’t occur to whoever wrote it that in such mundane sentences such as

With a hand mixer, beat on low speed for 1 minute. — Recipe, Conzatti’s Italian Market.

a verb immediately follows on the heels of a prepositional phrase.

Actually, all would be well were “except in imperatives” added to the rule, but to show you how it all works, we have to go the long way around.

Not all prepositional phrases in initial sentence position are alike. Those crucial to making a sentence grammatical will trigger a subject-verb inversion, a remnant of a Germanic past where, similar to German and Dutch, the verb must come in second position in independent clauses and the subject follows.

Your example sentence follows a construction known as a directive inversion: where a verb of directed motion takes a prepositional phrase as a complement, which has been fronted to initial sentence position:

Into the raging river plummeted the raft with its frightened occupants.

This is the inverted form of:

The raft plummeted into the raging river with its frightened occupants.

Now the raging river has no occupants, but a reader might begin parsing the sentence as if the with-phrase modified river instead of raft. The inversion is not only more dramatic; it’s clearer.

While the prepositional phrase with its frightened occupants is certainly of importance to those in the boat, it is not to the sentence itself:

The raft plummeted into the raging river.

Leave the river out, and you get:

The raft plummeted with its frightened occupants.

And your first question is where? The sentence makes no grammatical sense without the phrase.

In imperatives, however, even prepositional complements in initial sentence position take a comma before the verb:

Into a large mixing bowl, put the carrot, cabbage, beetroot, onion, chilli and half of the chopped coriander. Recipe, mofoodblog.com

Perhaps it’s the understood subject you that triggers the comma.

There are two other flavors of inversion beyond the directive relevant to your question: a locative inversion, where a location complements the verb, and one with with or by, which requires the adverb only or solely. One could, I suppose, term this construction an instrumental inversion since it describes the means by which some action or state occurs, but I don’t think anyone has bothered giving it a name.

The main thing, of course, is that you recognize the inversion and when you construct sentences yourself following this pattern, you don’t throw in a comma where it doesn’t belong.

Here’s another directive inversion like your example:

Down the slope from the wind-swept summit into the valley rode the posse of Jake Bush. — Arthur Murray Chisholm, The Land of Strong Men, 1919, 409.

A locative inversion:

Atop an incline at the end of the street stood the U.S. Capitol, the broad stairs sweeping upward to the colonnade and capped by the elaborate three-tiered dome. — Greil Marcus, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, 2007.

And one each with only with and only by:

Only with eyes closed could he see the iridescent scowl, white screen of brow that opened like the Hudson at twilight, where he stood breathing in the open air and shedding each day's labors. — Jacqueline A. Kolosov, Jacqueline McLean, Danish Ocean, 2003.

From all angles of government, we get the same message: “It's not our fault, and only by raising taxes can we solve the problem.” — San Bernardino County Sun (CA), 13 Feb.1991,9.

Sentences like these are what the rule has in mind, not imperatives. Perhaps you should email the website and suggest adding “except imperatives” to save others the confusion you faced trying to apply the rule.

  • This is fantastic! Thank you so much! I will have to reread it a few times to understand it fully, though. Just to be clear, would this exception for imperatives still apply even if the phrase has fewer than four or five words? Would something like "In a bowl, add the dry ingredients" be correct with the comma? – Beckylou Jun 9 '18 at 17:33
  • @Beckylou: Yes, even a short prepositional phrase before an imperative would take a comma. – KarlG Jun 10 '18 at 3:14
  • Thank you so much! Your expertise has been incredibly helpful! – Beckylou Jun 11 '18 at 15:52

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