I want to write the expression

I saw various science-fiction, thrillers and war movies last week.

in this way

The movies I saw last week, they were science-fiction, thrillers and war movies.


The courses I took at Y university, they were course1, course2 etc.

Do I need a comma after week and university in the expressions above?


Before I answer your question, I should mention that the sentence structure you're using here ( These things, they were _____ .) is pretty common in East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean). In English, however, it's not -- and I'm not sure that it's grammatically correct, to be honest. Mind you, I'm not sure that it's incorrect either, but it is definitely not in regular usage.

In English, we drop the "he/she/it/they/you" that follows the comma in question -- and in turn, drop the comma, too. So--

The movies I saw last week, they were science-fiction, thrillers and war movies.

This becomes:

The movies I saw last week were science-fiction, thrillers, and war movies.

Likewise, for your second example--

The courses I took at Y university, they were course1, course2 etc.

This becomes:

The courses I took at Y university were course1, course2 etc.

That's how you'd go about writing those out properly. If these sentences were spoken, it wouldn't be unheard of (ha, pun!) to hear a sentence like that, but that's because the pause following "week" and "university" (the comma) could just as easily be pauses as the speaker thinks for a moment to recall WHICH movies they had seen, and WHICH courses they had taken. By the time they finished recalling the movies/courses, they might decide that it would make more sense to use "they" instead of mentioning the subject again, to save time.

  • It's fine grammatically, but it might not be appropriate in formal written English. – user230 Nov 17 '13 at 5:15

Topicalization like:

The movies I saw last week, they were science-fiction, thrillers and war movies.

is acceptable in conversation; it is avoided in formal writing.

The main problem is that the subject "the movies I saw last week" is already the leftmost element of the sentence (following the general subject-verb-object pattern of English), and so the topicalization process does not actually move it. Basically, it just ends up inserting the superfluous word "they".

Simply by deleting the word "they", we end up with a grammatical sentence:

The movies I saw last week, they were science-fiction, thrillers and war movies.

If you want to use topicalization in writing, firstly do not use it too much, otherwise your writing will look like a parody of the Master Yoda character from Star Wars.

Secondly, topicalize something other than the subject of a sentence which is on the left, and do not insert any new words. Have some purpose for the topicalization. Use it to emphasize the topicalized part. For instance, in a legal will document you might write:

To my nephew John, I leave my collection of rare stamps.

which is a topicalized form of the sentence:

I leave my collection of rare stamps to my nephew John.

Any added superfluous words will look like a transcript of speech, and not formal writing:

About my nephew John, to that boy I leave my collection of rare stamps.

A famous example of a topicalized sentence, by the way, is "In God we trust".

You do need commas to separate the elements in a list, if there are three or more elements. These elements should be parallel. This means they should be words or phrases in the same grammatical category. Here is a simple example of "faulty parallelism":

I like to swim and running.

This should be either "I like swimming and running" or "I like to swim and to run", or possibly "I like to swim and run". (Swim and run are joined by "and" and share the "to"). "to swim" and "running" are not in the same category. One is an infinitive and the other a gerund.

In your sentence:

I saw various science-fiction, thrillers and war movies last week.

you have a faulty parallelism problem: "thrillers" is a plural, and therefore does not function as an adjective modifying "movies".

What you want to express is this:

I saw various science-fiction movies, thrillers and war movies last week.

We don't use the term "thriller movie", but only "thriller" which is understood to be a movie. So this creates a problem: we have two elements in the list which are some kind of movie. If we don't want to repeat the word movie, we can combine them like this "science-fiction and war movies". The trick is, how do we combine this with "thriller", which stands by itself? A good way is like this:

I saw various science-fiction and war movies last week, as well as (various) thrillers.

We can also insert another "and":

I saw various thrillers and science-fiction and war movies last week.

This is understood to mean:

I saw various (thrillers and ((science-fiction and war) movies)) last week.

The parallelism is okay, because "science-fiction" and "war" are parallel modifiers which modify "movies". And "movies" is then parallel with "thrillers". When we read this sentence out loud, there will be a slight pause before the first "and", and very little pause around the second "and", emphasizing that "science fiction and war movies" is one unit. It is more effective to replace the first "and" with another conjunction or a compound like "as well as" or "and also", so that there is no possibility of the sentence being misinterpreted as a flat three-list element with faulty parallelism and repeated "and".

If you replace the first "and" with a comma, it creates faulty parallelism, even if "science-fiction" isn't pluralized:

I saw various thrillers, science-fiction and war movies last week.

"thrillers" (types of movies) is parallel with "war movies" (types of movies), but "science-fiction" (a category of story telling) is at odds with these two.

You have three elements in the list, of which only last two are supposed to modify "movies". That doesn't work!

To leave the comma in place, you have to repeat "movies":

I saw various thrillers, science-fiction movies and war movies last week.

If we have an "A, B, C, .. and Z X" list, where A, B, C, ... Z are all modifiers, then all of them apply to X:

Last week I was at home sick, and so I watched numerous comedy, war, science-fiction, documentary and action films.

Every single element in the list must act as a modifier for "movies". It is a condensed way of writing "numerous comedy films, war films, science-fiction films and action films". All the elements are noun phrases with the common head "films", which can be factored out of the list.

  • More precisely, parallelism usually requires that conjuncts have the same syntactic function, not the same syntactic category. – user230 Nov 17 '13 at 5:14
  • @snailboat Is there a difference that an English learner would care about? Things can be categorized according to function. – Kaz Nov 17 '13 at 5:49
  • Sure. Category here refers to things like noun phrase, adjective phrase, and so on. Take a look at the grammatical example "He's a Republican and proud of it". Here, a noun phrase is coordinated with an adjective phrase. They belong to different categories, but they have the same syntactic function (predicative complement) so they don't violate parallelism and the coordination is grammatical. The rule you outline here is Chomsky's generalization (from Syntactic Structures 1957), but we now understand that this rule is not adequate to describe coordination in English. – user230 Nov 17 '13 at 18:06
  • @snailboat "He's a republican and proud of it" is actually elision from two clauses: "He is a republican and he is proud of it". There requirements for parallelism between clauses joined by "and", if any, are quite loose. The basic requirement is "clause and clause". This is a different "and" from the one in "apples and oranges". – Kaz Nov 17 '13 at 18:13
  • See Zwicky & Pullum 1986 for the contrary view. – user230 Nov 17 '13 at 18:29

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