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Do the commas (or lack of) change the meaning between these two sentences:

In the beginning, when the house was sold, it didn’t bother me too much.

In the beginning when the house was sold, it didn’t bother me too much.

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  • You shouldn't think of it being the position of the comma that changes the meaning. Commas only exist to reflect pauses in speech. The two possible meanings arise depending on whether the pause occurs after "beginning" OR after "sold" (which dictates whether the first 3 words refer to the sale, or being bothered). The fact that your first version has commas in BOTH positions is syntactically irrelevant - if there IS a pause after the first three words, a speaker would be unlikely to pause again before the end of the utterance, but the semantic implication is already fixed anyway. Feb 12 at 11:30
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    "In the beginning when the house was sold" is nearly meaningless, IMO. I don't know what you're trying to say there. Not long after the house was sold? At first, after the house had been sold? In the beginning (of something), when the sale of the house took place? Immediately after the house had been sold?
    – TimR
    Feb 12 at 11:37
  • Are you trying to say something like this? "It didn't bother me too much when the house was sold -- at least in the beginning."
    – TimR
    Feb 12 at 12:02
  • @TimR You can imagine a para of context in which the speaker says he’s bothered about a family house is selling to an extent.
    – AJK432
    Feb 12 at 16:04
  • @AJK432: I understood that it had something to do with the sale (completed?) of a house. The temporal elements are not clear (In the beginning and when the house was sold). In the beginning of what? Are you trying to refer to the period of time immediately after the house had been sold? "At first it didn't bother me that the house had been sold." For many speakers, it cannot serve as the semantic placeholder for a when-clause.
    – TimR
    Feb 12 at 16:10

2 Answers 2

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It does. In you first example , when the house was sold, works as an apposition of in the beginning:

In the beginning, that is, when the house was sold, it didn’t bother me too much.

Here we understand that "the beginning" is when the house was sold.

In your second example, in the beginning can be understood as at first, initially:

At first, the fact that the house was sold didn’t bother me too much

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  • Wouldn't be "At the beginning…" for both examples? "at the beginning when I left…"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 12 at 8:42
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    I find << In the beginning when the house was sold, >> unclear. The 'restrictive = no commas, non-restrictive = 2 commas' rule isn't absolute, and further commas complicate anyway. This is ('just' doesn't apply) a case of differentiating the appositive (synchronous) reading from the 'at the start of the period after the house had been sold' reading. A restrictive reading (unlikely) would be say 'in beginning number 7, the one where the house was sold, ...'. Feb 12 at 19:30
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    Poppycock...... Feb 13 at 3:38
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    @AJK 'In the morning after the brief but torrential storm, they assessed the damage' ≠ 'In the morning, after the brief but torrential storm, they assessed the damage'. The first has a PP within a PP; the second has paired PPs ... a list needing a listing comma (an 'and' would not be ungrammatical ... but would sound precious). Stacking multiple (>2) PPs isn't common as interpretation becomes difficult, often clunky, and sometimes unfeasible (because of ambiguity). And as I've said, some juxtapositions are better rephrased. // I'd think up a few reasonable examples and submit a new question... Feb 13 at 12:54
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    PPs can add prototypically temporal, locative, directional information (after today, on Thursday, in 1984; at home, in Wigan; from the station, to Mars) but much, much more (of the people; for the good of all;; by degrees; on course; on fire; of course ....). Feb 13 at 12:58
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If "when" were a relative adverb the sentence would be meaningless;

  • At the time when the house collapsed there was no one within. (relative adverb)

  • At the end of the summer, when swallows had not yet left on their migration, the weather suddenly became very cold. (conjunction)

Therefore, "In the beginning" and "when the house was sold" are both time adjuncts.

Normally, a comma should separate any sequence of adverbials; so, "In the beginning" and "when the house was sold" should be separated by a comma (which indicates asyndetic coordination). This means that there is no difference in the meaning.

  • They live in the depths of the ocean, where light does not penetrate. (Note that the parsing is ambiguous between "where" as restrictive relative adverb and "where" as conjunction introducing a predication adjunct.)

(Note that in the example supra, the relative adverb posibility makes sense, and it is recognized then because no comma is used: "They live in the the depths of the ocean where light does not penetrate.". )

Most of the time writers do use a comma in this context.

at the beginning when On this page the comma is used about 50 times and is omitted about 20. There is even a case of use and omission within the same sentence, where it is obvious that there is no difference in meaning whatsoever.

(The Santa's Great Treasure Chest: 450+ Christmas Novels, ... ) But all through this night of Christmas Eve he lay awake; and no dream had ever been as half as sweet as the thought. It would have been a hideous waste of time to sleep, when he could lie there and live over again each moment of this evening, beginning at the beginning, when She had come into the room, and going on to the end when he had brought her and Rosemary to the door of the Hotel Beau Soleil, to say "goodbye until tomorrow".

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  • So, what if they weren’t a sequence? Or, at least, not intended to be.
    – AJK432
    Feb 12 at 16:08

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