A Subject Described by Many Words Appears to Call for a Comma

No minimally competent writer of English would write:

"John, kicked the ball."

But I often see sentences like:

"The most famous proponent of subjective idealism in the Western world, was the 18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley..." (This was on Wikipedia, where I just corrected it.)

I think it is just the sheer number of words describing the subject that leads people to stick that comma in there: so many words must need a separator!


  1. I think the author of that sentence probably wanted to indicate a brief pause. I don't mind the practice myself, though some older texts—including the US Constitution—definitely overuse it.

    "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

    Not as bad as "John, kicked the ball"—but still pretty bad.

  2. Maybe the author had been reading a lot of Bishop Berkeley's writing and the sound of it was stuck in his head. Bishop Berkeley and other of my favorite writers of the 18th century, Dr Johnson, David Hume, James Boswell, et al., used the comma in this way quite often.

    Robert C. Pinckert, in his guide to writing (The Truth about English; also titled Pinckert's Practical Grammar), recommends punctuating guided by sound. To the author whose sentence you corrected he might say:

    "You heard the comma before [was]. If you heard it, you get to use it. You're not in charge of spelling, but you are in charge of how you want your writing to be read. Using the comma is an art and you are the artist. Punctuation is correct only when it it correctly expresses your intention."

  3. Hmmm ... !! It was my impression that Berkeley was actually *not* a subjective idealist - and that subjective idealism might not even have any proponents!

    1. Right you are. I was researching the common error when I found this sentence.

      Did I send you my Berkeley paper?

    2. Gene; yes, you did! And I have read it; thank you! It cleared up some confusion I had regarding Idealism. Fortunately, with Experience and It's Modes nearly done, and with Speculum Mentis from Collingwood coming up, I should be almost ready to argue for Idealism in what will be my senior paper this coming Spring (I'm getting an extra early start on it to make sure that it is as good as an undergraduate can make it!)

  4. "so many words must need a separator!"

    Gene, some spontaneous configurations, no matter how broadly adopted, are awful. This qualifies.