While reading Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," I questioned a comma he inserted before a clause beginning with "to," which I emboldened below. Is this construction necessary as a grammatical rule, was it used as an indication of a pause, or was it both?

"What did she say?" asked the girl.

"That the train is coming in five minutes."

The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.

  • 3
    Because it felt natural for him to introduce a pause at that point, the way someone might do in speaking the sentence..
    – Robusto
    Oct 13, 2017 at 13:07

2 Answers 2


Despite what you may have been taught in school, there are few (if any) real grammatical rules related to commas, especially with creative writing. Writers may use them, or not use them, as they feel appropriate.

The comma is used to represent the pauses you might make when speaking the words out loud. People choose to put pauses in different places, and so, even when writing the same sentence, different authors will chose to punctuate it differently.

Of course, omitting a comma can significantly change the meaning of a sentence. A common, humorous example:

Let's eat, grandma!
Let's eat grandma!


He's trying to set off "to thank her", to show that it is something of an afterthought. That is, he wants to say that the girl smiled as if that was sufficient information, but then add "to thank her" as an additional detail or clarification.

If you were speaking, you might say something and then stop, thinking you had expressed the complete idea. Then you realize you needed to give additional information to be clear, so you tack on additional words after a brief pause. Or maybe you originally thought to say it, but you saw it as a side comment, not part of the main thought, and so you insert a pause. He's trying to reproduce that by using the comma.

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