Can You Use a Comma Before a Gerund Phrase?
The rules governing the use of gerunds and commas can be confusing for two reasons: first, gerunds are unusual constructions that make a verb do the traditional work of a noun. They can be unwieldy and awkward devices, and it’s not always clear how they properly function within a sentence. To make matters worse, the many functions of the comma are far from systematically defined. In fact, the comma is likely the most flexible and multifaceted of all punctuation.
Defining a Gerund
According to “The Chicago Manual of Style,” a gerund is a verb, specifically a present participle, that functions exactly like a noun. For example: “Being a jerk won’t accomplish anything.” In this case, the verbal phrase “being a jerk” acts like a noun. Gerunds needn’t be the subject of the sentence in which they appear; they can also be the object of a verb or of a preposition.
The Use of a Comma
It isn’t easy to pin down the exact use of a comma. First, commas have several distinct functions. They can be used to separate items in a list, to separate clauses or even to indicate that the reader should pause. Also, how and when a writer deploys a comma can be a matter of individual discretion rather than dictated by a clear rule. According to “The Chicago Manual of Style,” the “use of the comma involves good judgement, with ease of reading the end in view.”
The Gerund as Subject
When the gerund functions as the subject of a verb, it is rarely acceptable for a comma to precede it. However, it can follow a comma if the sentence begins with a conjunctive adverb such as “otherwise” or “consequently.” Here’s an example: “Consequently, complaining a lot made him very unpopular.” The gerund “complaining a lot” is the subject of the verb “made” and follows a comma.
The Gerund as Direct Object
Sometimes a gerund can be the object of a sentence’s primary verb. For example: “I love your writing.” The gerund in this case is “writing” and is the object of the verb “love.” Just like when the gerund is the subject of the verb, it’s relatively rare to precede it with a comma. Still, there are some instances that justify it. Consider this example: “I love, above all else, your writing.” Notice here that the comma is used poetically to separate “above all else” from the remainder of the sentence. More often than not, a gerund as direct object is preceded by a comma used for stylistic purposes.
- Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition
Based in New York City, Ivan Kenneally has been writing about politics, education and American culture since 2006. His articles have appeared in national publications like the 'Washington Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Cosmopolitan"and "Esquire." He has an Master of Arts in political theory from the New School for Social Research.