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Jack stood at the door, numb with pain.

Am I right in putting a comma before the word numb? It's not a comma splice because 'numb with pain' is not an independent clause. Without the comma, there is the irritating possibility of misreading the sentence as [door numb] like [red door].

Thanks

  • 2
    Yes. I think you are right in including the comma. The clause is independent to the extent that if you removed it, the sentence would still be grammatical. – WS2 May 21 at 22:03
  • Isn't "numb with pain" kind of a oxymoron? – Cascabel May 22 at 12:11
  • I've an entire area of my back that is numb, but the pain extends to my neck and down to my feet. In this case, the phrase probably relates to a feeling of psychological paralysis brought on by debilitating pain. – James Alonso May 22 at 14:10
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It may be grammatical without the comma, but (without further rephrasing) the meaning of the sentence would be ambiguous and could lead to a nonsensical interpretation.

Without the comma, either of these are possibilities:

Jack stood at the door [and was] numb with pain.

Jack was numb with pain.

Jack stood at the door [that was] numb with pain.

The door was numb with pain.


With the comma, you can invert the sentence if you want to understand it in a different visual way:

Numb with pain, Jack stood at the door.


So, if you don't want there to be any possible misunderstanding (I grant it's unlikely anybody would interpret it incorrectly), and if you don't want to rephrase the sentence, include the comma in this sentence.


Note that in the specific sentence considered so far, common sense would typically reason that it can't be the door that is feeling numb.

However, consider this:

Jack stood next to Mary, numb with pain.

Here, it seems clear that it's Jack who's numb with pain, especially since this sentence can still be inverted as before:

Numb with pain, Jack stood next to Mary.


But it's not nearly as clear if we remove the comma:

? Jack stood next to Mary numb with pain.

Since common sense doesn't rule out Mary being the person feeling pain (as it would with the door), this is a truly ambiguous sentence.

As before, inserting missing words would make the meaning clear:

Jack stood next to Mary [and was] numb with pain. (Jack is numb with pain.)
Jack stood next to Mary [who was] numb with pain. (Mary is numb with pain.)

But there is nothing that clearly shows which of those missing words should be assumed.

Therefore, common sense can't bail us out from this situation. With this sentence, it's even more essential to either use a comma or rephrase the sentence to add those missing words that make the meaning clear.

  • Thank you, Jason. That was my thinking as well, although I forgot to apply the second test, the inversion test. The possibility of a momentary misunderstanding(you could find a similar example that leads to an actual misunderstanding) is the reason for the comma. It becomes good practice to use it as it avoids real misunderstandings and/or the slowing down of reading comprehension(although not to be used for pauses.) It's the same mentality that justifies the use of the Oxford comma. I cannot vote up as I'm new to this site. – James Alonso May 22 at 14:00
  • I don't see how the comma affects the ambiguity about who/what was numb. It's only really disambiguated through common sense. Change the first clause to "Jack stood next to Mary", and there's no way to know who was numb, with or without the comma. – Barmar May 22 at 19:50
  • @Barmar (1) Jack stood next to Mary, numb with pain. This would normally be interpreted as Jack being numb with pain. Especially because of (2) Numb with pain, Jack stood next to Mary. Inverting the sentence in this construction shouldn't affect the syntactical units. If it's clear from (2), that should indicate what's happening in (1) too. If you wanted to refer to Mary, then it would be Jack stood next to Mary, who was numb with pain. (A construction that can't be simply inverted.) – Jason Bassford May 23 at 3:03
  • But what is the relevance of the comma? Jack stood next to Mary numb with pain. Would that normally be interpreted differently? – Barmar May 23 at 14:44
  • @Barmar In Jack stood next to Mary numb with pain, I would hesitate to assume which of the people the author had meant was feeling numb. (I'd withhold an opinion and look for contextual clues in the following sentences—and be somewhat dissatisfied with having to do so.) With the comma, however, I would automatically assume it was Jack. – Jason Bassford May 23 at 14:52
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Jack stood at the door, numb with pain.

Here, 'numb with pain' has been classed as an absolute phrase.

From MyEnglishgrammar.com:

An absolute phrase is a group of words that forms part of a sentence, to which it doesn’t need a conjunction to join. It consists of a subject or a noun, a participle, and a modifier, but it does not have a finite verb. Without a finite verb, an absolute phrase cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. The participle can be a past participle or present participle, which may not be present in an absolute phrase.

An absolute phrase functions as a modifier of an independent clause (main clause) or entire sentence, and in doing so gives further information. It is separated by a comma, and its removal does not affect the grammar of the sentence.

(emphasis mine)

An absolute phrase may come at the beginning, in the middle (between the subject and the verb), or at the end of a sentence.

Their mouths uttering prayer for lasting world peace, the long-bearded cult members gathered on the beach.

The long-bearded cult members, their mouths uttering prayer for lasting world peace, gathered on the beach.

The long-bearded cult members gathered on the beach, their mouths uttering prayer for lasting world peace.

Other authorities eg Beth Hill: MyEnglishGrammar Should I Use Absolute Phrases?

('It typically contains a noun followed by a modifier, though sometimes it will simply be a modifier.')

and Wikipedia , which used to contain

(Being a word, phrase, or construction that is isolated syntactically from the rest of a sentence):

Example Usages:

• “this being the case, let us go”[1]

• "The referee having finally arrived, the game began."[2]'

• “The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going."

[• Hair streaming in the wind, she rode flat out across the field.

Mortified, he could not run out of the way of the troll.])

allow modifier-only absolute phrases / adjectives (but beware the different senses of 'absolute adjective); they attach to nouns etc:

Jack stood at the door, numb with pain.

Inconsolable, John refused to go with them.

Note the possibility of the lack of a comma with an adjective coming after the verb:

John flopped exhausted onto the sofa.

Also, note the possibility of heavier-duty punctuation:

John stood at the door – too tired to flee.

  • I've seen such phrases without a subject called 'participial phrase'. The absolute phrase would then be something like: Jack stood at the door, his face numb with pain. – S Conroy May 23 at 18:23
  • @S Conroy. No. Note the difference between 'Blown by the wind, we slowly made our way to the restaurant.' and 'Our hair blown by the wind, we slowly made our way to the restaurant.' The first contains the participial phrase/clause – the participle is the first word. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 at 18:36
  • Numb with pain, Jack stood at the door is a similar structure to your first example -- with the participial clause. 'His face numbe with pain, Jack stood at the door' would be the absolute phrase with it's own subject (noun). – S Conroy May 23 at 18:44
  • But there's no participle in 'numb with pain'. Though I agree, some wouldn't extend the 'absolute' classification beyond [noun group + participle (+ perhaps a by-phrase) (+ modifiers)]. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 at 18:49
  • Yes, I see that I read numb as 'numbed' which isn't accurate. – S Conroy May 23 at 18:54
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Adding onto the comment to the original question. This is a discretionary comma as with or without it exists as grammatically correct sentence.

Jack stood at the door, numb with pain. Jack stood at the door numb with pain.

The use of the comma dictates the cadence of how the reader flows through the sentence. Additionally, the sentence does not need the additional appendage clause and could flow as such: Jack stood at the door.

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