Intonation, can mark subjects

subject_predicateAn item on the BBC news website this week contains a fairly common type of punctuation ‘error’:

A little known species driven to the edge of extinction by poaching, has gained extra protection at the Cites meeting in South Africa.

Strictly, there should either be two commas, surrounding the phrase driven to the edge of extinction by poaching, or else there should be none. (I’ve copied the ‘error’ in the title of this post.) Why did the writer use only one comma?

The answer, I think, is that it marks a major division which is often reflected in intonation, between the subject and the predicate of a statement. The subject is the entity about whom the statement is made; the predicate, which begins with the verb, says something about the subject. For example:

Rising prices have hurt budgets most.
subject: [rising prices]   predicate: [have hurt budgets most]

Here are two more examples of subject-marking commas that I’ve seen in print (one British, one American):

One of the biannual exams they had, involved the committing to memory of one complete enemy target briefing.
This spectacular aerial view of the island valley of Avalon, is highlighted by the clear blue harbor waters…

It may not be considered correct to write a comma after a subject, but native speakers do often place an intonation boundary here, i.e. they give separate intonation patterns to the subject and the predicate. We often hear this in speeches, in teaching and in news broadcasting. Here’s a BBC correspondent:

  [rising prices] [have hurt budgets most]

And an American example:

  [the government] [could offer lower insurance premiums
  than the private sector]

Both of those examples exhibit a common pairing of intonation patterns: a Fall-Rise on the subject, and a Fall at or near the end of the predicate. Here are the two subject words prices and government, both said with a Fall-Rise:

I’m sure that the intonational marking of the subject-predicate boundary encourages native speakers to write a comma there. Non-natives can avoid subject-marking commas when they write (the one in the title of this post is ironic); but subject-marking intonation is worth practising, especially when the subject is substantial (not a weak pronoun). Here are two more examples from British and American news:

  [poaching to fuel \/China’s ivory trade] [could see
  half the remaining elephants disappear…]

  [even \/lawmakers] [struggle to explain them]

Again, the subjects are marked by the Fall-Rise:

The Fall-Rise is certainly not the only pattern used on subjects, but it’s certainly common enough to be worth practising.

4 replies
  1. Masanori
    Masanori says:

    This is again an intriguing subject.
    The fairly common type of punctuation ‘error’ could be explained by the fact that, as you pointed out later in the article, it marks a major division reflected in intonation.

    If one goes back a little in history, until the 18th century punctuation was closely related to spoken delivery, often indicating pauses to take breath, for instance, after a rather lengthy subject. But nowadays it is normally based on grammatical structures. So the BBC punctuation seems to make sense in a way rather than an ‘error’ (grammatical) , because they need to pause after the 12-word subject for a breath with the Fall-Rise.

    I will keep an eye open for more interesting examples of a comma after a subject.

  2. robert kohler
    robert kohler says:

    I’ve got a question about the fall -rising tone.
    Does the rising tone already start in the same syllable as the falling tone or in the syllable after it?
    I can’t hear it clearly because it’s too fast spoken.

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      The fall-rise has the peculiarity that the rise is delayed to the end of the phrase. So if we put the fall-rise on ‘knowledgeable’, which is stressed on the first syllable, the pitch will usually be low on the second and third syllables, and higher on the last syllable.


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