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I read this long sentence in today's newspaper:

Police believe the pirates who attacked the Singapore-owned oil tanker in the Straits of Malacca near Pulau Ketam early Tuesday, may have had "inside help"

Is it better if I put a comma or semicolon as follows:

Police believe the pirates, who attacked the Singapore-owned oil tanker in the Straits of Malacca near Pulau Ketam early Tuesday, may have had "inside help"

or

Police believe the pirates who attacked the Singapore-owned oil tanker in the Straits of Malacca near Pulau Ketam early Tuesday; may have had "inside help"

  • @snailplane: apart from a missing space after the comma, the sentence looks fine. Actually I will edit in a source :) In that source it says "early Tuesday", but that doesn't change much, does it? – oerkelens Apr 24 '14 at 15:16
  • @snailplane Why? I think it is a perfectly fine sentence atucally. – oerkelens Apr 24 '14 at 15:19
  • Thanks for the double-checking the transcription and adding the link. (I stand by my judgment that the sentence looks wrong, by the way, but I now see that that is probably why Pupu asked the question.) – snailboat Apr 24 '14 at 15:35
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There are three issues here.

First, when you have a clause that describes some one or something in a sentence, it may or may not be set off with commas. That is -- and let me simplify the sentence to make my point -- you can say, "The pirates who attacked the tanker had help", or you could say, "The pirates, who attacked the tanker, had help." The difference is that with commas it is called a "non-restrictive clause", meaning that it tells us something about the noun being modified, but does not narrow its meaning. Without commas, it is a "restrictive clause", meaning that these words are necessary to understand who or what is being referred to. In this example, if we say, "The pirates who attacked the tanker ...", "who attacked the tanker" tells us which pirates we mean. If we said, "The pirates, who attacked the tanker, ..." then we would have to have already established in context what pirates we are talking about, and now we are just telling you something additional about them.

For example, consider: "A group of pirates set out in a boat while onlookers watched from the beach. Then men who attacked the tanker wore red shirts." In this case we need to say "who attacked the tanker" to distinguish the pirates from the onlookers. Otherwise it would not be clear whether it was the pirates or the onlookers who wore red shirts. On the other hand: "The pirates boarded a boat and set out to sea. They were dangerous killers who had committed many acts of violence. The men, who attacked a tanker last month, ..." Now we are only talking about one group of men, so we don't need to identify them. saying they attacked a tanker is just supplying additional information.

Second, in very long sentences like this writers sometimes add a comma more to give the reader a chance to catch his breath than for any truly grammatical function. I think that's the case in your example. I'd say that's wrong as the comma does not serve a defined purpose and introduces an essentially random break into the sentence. Others would disagree.

Third, using a semi-colon here would be flatly wrong. A semi-colon can be used in two ways:

(a) To combine two independent clauses. That is, to basically cram two sentences together without using a conjunction. Example: "I ran to the door. Mary was there." Two sentences. "I ran to the door and Mary was there." Two sentences combined into one with a conjunction. "I ran to the door; Mary was there." Two sentences combined into one with a semi-colon.

(b) When giving a list where elements within the list have sub-elements, especially if those sub-elements are separated by commas. Say you were listing the colors of flags you saw. One flag is red, white, and blue. Another is solid green. A third is black, white, and read. If you wrote, "The flags were red, white, and blue, green and black, white and red", a reader could easily be confused where one set of colors begins and another ends. Was there a flag that was green and black and another that was white and red? Or maybe one was blue, green, and black. But if you write, "The flags were red, white, and blue; green; and black, white, and red," then the meaning should be clear.

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I agree with Oerkelens' approach of simplifying the sentence, but not necessarily with his conclusion.

In the sentence:

Police believe that the men who attacked the tanker on Tuesday had inside help

you can use commas to separate out the subordinate clause "who attacked the tanker on Tuesday." But if you do so, you must separate it out completely, with a comma both before the relative pronoun "who" and after the end of the clause:

Police believe that the men, who attacked the tanker on Tuesday, had inside help

There is no real change in meaning in this sentence, but there is a change in emphasis. I would expect to find this sentence following another sentence about the men:

Six men were arrested for piracy in Mogadishu on Friday. The men, who attacked a tanker on Tuesday, are thought to have had inside help.

It would sound somewhat odd to have the comma-separated version as the first sentence in a news story, with no previous reference to the men. You would more likely see:

Six men who attacked a tanker on Tuesday are thought to have had inside help.

The versions with a single comma or semicolon after the subordinate clause, but none before, are not idiomatic in American English. In modern usage, you must set off a subordinate clause completely with commas or not at all.

  • I would totally agree if the use of a comma after a long clause (but not before) would indeed be deemed wrong, would not exist, and would certainly not be used in the press. However, I see it too often to say it is not in use by native speakers. Since you have now copied everything that was in my answer, including the doubts (expressed as hard facts...) about the one-comma version, I will remove my answer as obsolete :) – oerkelens Apr 24 '14 at 17:24
  • @oerkelens Just a note: not everything native speakers say or write is standard. (Sometimes, standard it ain't!) The bar is higher than "in use". – snailboat Apr 24 '14 at 19:49

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