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I rather hope this is not too basic a question for this forum (or that it is erroneous altogether!)

We have this sentence:

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus, if it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?

Now, the second clause here is introduced by an "if", which should, to my knowledge, indicate that it is a dependent clause (also, it could not stand alone.) Further I have learned that dependent clauses are not to be set off by a comma should they follow an independent clause (Which I believe the first clause is.) The issue is that the sentence reads awfully if that comma is omitted:

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus if it was meant to transport heavy goods...

And further, the last clause can also not stand alone (according to my judgement at least.) Should two dependent clauses following an independent clause not use a comma anywhere? That seems intuitively wrong, no?

So how should this sentence be punctuated?

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  • You have run-on. I'd use a period: "...apparatus. If..." In other situations, the comma works: "Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus, if it was valuable at all. Surely they would not have left it to rot here?" Apr 2 at 20:20
  • That was another option I considered, but I still was not sure whether there should be a comma before "surely", considering it's neither an preposition nor a conjunction. Apr 2 at 20:24
  • Though I do not understand why that would be run-on. "If it was meant to carry heavy goods" is not an independent clause, is it? Apr 2 at 20:26
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    You are right that "If it was meant" is a dependent clause. But it depends on the next clause more that it is related to the opening clause. I think it's too much for one sentence, but you could have "apparatus, and if it was meant." Apr 2 at 20:39
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    Two sentences would be far more sensible. 'Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus, if it was meant to transport heavy goods. Surely they would not have left it to rot here?' (which doesn't sound too felicitous) or 'Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus. If it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?', depending on intended meaning. Apr 2 at 21:52

1 Answer 1

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The clause after the second comma (surely . . .) is actually an independent clause. You can tell because it doesn’t start with a subordinator or function as a component of another clause. Surely they would not have left it to rot here? is perfectly grammatical as its own sentence.

The if clause may be traditionally considered a dependent clause with subordinating conjunction if, though modern grammar classifies this conditional marker as a preposition, making it a prepositional phrase. Either way, I’d argue it is attached semantically to the second independent clause (the question) and not the first. (It’s at least more likely given the phrasing to be tied to the second, though it might be best to clarify intended meaning.) My answer will operate under that assumption.

What you have here is a comma splice: a comma incorrectly joining two independent clauses (Keith did not . . . and surely . . .) on its own. To make it correct, the first comma would have to be replaced by another punctuation mark that can legally join independent clauses. Or you could add a conjunction/preposition, though that might make the sentence unwieldy. The comma after the conditional should ideally stay since the phrase is rather long and placed before the subsequent independent clause. Thus, these are your options:

A period is always a safe choice to separate independent clauses. But I’d say the two ideas are closely linked enough to warrant being one sentence.

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus. If it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?

A semicolon can join two independent clauses into one sentence without a conjunction. I think this works the best because it establishes that the two express complementary ideas.

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus; if it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?

A colon could work here as well because the latter part of the sentence serves to further explain why he was confused.

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus: if it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?

Em dashes can also connect two independent clauses, though the use of one might not completely fit here, as they usually express cases of significant contrast or emphasis.

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus—if it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?

Finally, if you would rather add an additional word than change the punctuation, you could add a casual preposition like as, because, for, or since to the start of the second clause, turning it into a prepositional phrase. (Traditionally for is classified as a coordinating conjunction and the others as subordinators, but much like if they are now often considered prepositions. Doubtless there are myriad analyses of this on this site.)

Keith did not know what to make of this apparatus, as/because/for/since if it was meant to transport heavy goods, surely they would not have left it to rot here?

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  • Oh, the colon is a creative option to offer, yes. Apr 2 at 22:11
  • Thank you for this exhaustive answer! I think the semicolon is optimal here. Apr 3 at 8:44
  • I wouldn't go along with some of your assertions. (1) Subordinate clauses are not always marked as such by a subordinator, but often some other way. For example the subordinator "that" is often optional in content clauses and relative clauses. (2) You talk of "if-clause", but in contemporary grammar conditional "if" is a preposition, so the expression if it was meant to transport heavy goods is not a clause but a preposition phrase.
    – BillJ
    Apr 3 at 12:19
  • (3) In for if it was meant to transport heavy goods, "for" is not a subordinator but a preposition with a similar meaning to "because". Similarly, "as" and "because" are not subordinators but prepositions.
    – BillJ
    Apr 3 at 12:19
  • @BillJ Thank you. I have updated my answer to better reflect these classifications.
    – GrammarCop
    Apr 3 at 22:09

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