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I'm wondering about whether it is correct to use a comma in this situation.

This, we will do last.

vs

This we will do last.

The "this" here is referring to something described in the previous sentence obviously. The comma looks to me a little bit less grammatical and yet agrees better with the vocal pattern where a significant pause is expected.

Which is correct and why? Can they both be correct?

  • Yes both can be correct, and both are. As you say, here the comma serves to create a pause and thus emphasis. As I will add, a comma alone can't make anything less grammatical or more grammatical. This sentence, right, here is, perfe,ctly gram.ma,,tical E,,,,ng,lis,h. It is cumbersome to read and clearly there's something wrong with my head or my keyboard. But there are no grammatical mistakes anywhere in it. Not a one. – RegDwigнt Mar 10 at 15:15
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    This is not writing. This is speech. Some human being said this, and commas can be heard in speech (unlike apostrophes, for instance). If you hear a comma in this sentence, include the comma when you transcribe the sentence. – John Lawler Mar 10 at 15:18
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Your sentence is an example of syntax called fronting. Peters in the section on fronting in The Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar (p135) states:

In conversation, fronting of the clausal object or complement may be achieved simply by promoting it to the start of the clause, as in:

  • Raw egg for breakfast I can't stand.
  • Wonderful it was indeed!

You'll note that neither the object (raw egg for breakfast) nor the complement (wonderful) is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. But as the comments under your question indicate, this is not a matter of grammaticality. The comma is acceptable to emphasise the this and represent a small pause.

Note that there is a related example of fronting (called left-dislocation) where a comma is needed. Namely, when the sentence contains a resumptive pronoun. Peters has the example:

  • The last owner, I heard he had moved overseas.

Without the comma the reader or listener is momentarily led down a garden path.

| improve this answer | |
  • A garden path you say the reader will be led down. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 at 18:25
  • @Edwin Ashworth. Why isn't your comment a good example of a garden path. Alternatively, correctly punctuated, Why, isn't your comment a good example of a garden path! – Shoe Mar 11 at 10:31

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