Let us look at the sentences

I think, that man always errs. / I think that man always errs.

Does my punctuation officially suffice to clarify that the first sentence refers to a specific man, while the second refers to Homo sapiens? If not, how to improve the punctuation? I am not interested in rephrasing the sentence. It's just an example for a general problem.

I tried to clarify this using the internet, but failed to find the appropriate guideline.

  • 1
    There is no official guide to punctuation. That's one reason why we become interested in rephrasing. In any case, the punctuation does not resolve the ambiguity that attends these written statements.
    – TimR
    Jun 28, 2017 at 11:29
  • 1
    Point of grammar: "that" is a demonstrative determinative in your example, not a pronoun. You don't need the comma, it serves no purpose. Semantically, it's ambiguous - there's no cure except recasting it. Btw, I'm not sure what relative pronouns (as show in the title) have to do with any of this.
    – BillJ
    Jun 28, 2017 at 11:57
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo one of my native languages (Greek) relies extremely on voice tone. Obviously, authors needed to be able to write the way people spoke, but needed to be able to produce unambiguous statements too. So (until recently) there existed ways to remove most of these ambiguities by accentuation and punctuation. My other native language (German) uses a less accurate punctuation than English. Until now I assumed English was like Greek. ;)
    – Ludi
    Jun 28, 2017 at 13:07
  • 2
    Punctuation in written texts is a crude representation of the prosodic features that add clarity to speech. It is better to rephrase than to rely upon punctuation. One could understand your sentence to mean "I think humankind always errs." or "I think that fellow always errs". In speech there would be no ambiguity because the prosody of subordinator that is quite different from the prosody of demonstrative that.
    – TimR
    Jun 28, 2017 at 13:15

1 Answer 1


No. The punctuation does not resolve the ambiguity between (a) man, and mankind.

The second sentence is unproblematic. In the second sentence "man" is easy to understand as "mankind", and the use of that is the same as in "He said that the grass was green", it introduces a reported quote.

The first sentence is more problematic. One doesn't normally split the verb from its object by a comma. The best I can understand your first "sentence" is as two sentences.

The detective turned and faced the witnesses.

"I think," he said, pausing to look around the room, "That man always errs", and pointed at Sir Brian.

Everyone gasped.

"So the murderer is none other than ....

This forms two sentences "I think. That man always errs". You can also say "I think that that man always errs" (the first "that" is unstressed in this position).

You can avoid the ambiguity entirely be rephrasing.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .