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Which of the following three sentences are grammatically correct and use commas properly?

1. Jack died peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and yelling like the passengers on his plane.

2.Jack died peacefully, in his sleep, not screaming and yelling, like the passengers on his plane.

Or

3. Jack died, peacefully, in his sleep, not screaming and yelling, like the passengers on his plane.

My intuition is that only the first one is correct. I'm quite sure that the third one is wrong and overuses commas. However, I'm not sure about the second one. My point of confusion concerns the comma before the word "like" in the second sentence. I'm not sure whether placing the comma there is legitimate. When I say the sentence to myself in my head, pausing briefly before the word "like" doesn't seem obviously wrong to me. But I think that the pause before "in his sleep" is unnecessary. So which of these three is right? There can be more than one that is correct, by the way.

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    They all look fine to me. It depends on the specific meaning you want to convey. – Jason Bassford Oct 25 '18 at 22:19
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The three sentences are all "correct" in the sense that it's permissable for the commas to be placed as they are. It therefore comes down to style and semantics.

While the comma after yelling is permissible, it's problematic because it creates ambiguity. Without the comma, a likely interpretation is that the passengers were screaming but Jack wasn't: we assume the word "were" has been elided (not screaming and yelling like the passengers on his plane were). The comma introduces the possibility of another reading:

Jack died peacefully, like the passengers on his plane. No one was screaming or yelling.

Inserting the elided were would help eliminate the ambiguity.

In a sentence loaded with commas, it makes the reader's task a little easier to mix up the punctuation a bit. The comma after died in sentence #3 could be seen as excessive, as it unnecessarily separates the adverb from the verb it's modifying. On the other hand, surrounding peacefully with commas performs the same function as separating it with brackets or dashes, giving the word a degree of emphasis.

I would therefore suggest a fourth sentence with (to use a Radiohead lyric) "everything in its right place":

Jack died - peacefully - in his sleep, not screaming and yelling like the passengers on his plane were.

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    +1. The "not … like" construct is biased towards ambiguity and needs to be treated carefully. – Lawrence Oct 26 '18 at 3:12
  • @Lawrence yes, good point. I've edited my answer to add a further treatment for that construct. :-) – Chappo Oct 26 '18 at 3:24

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