6

"So what happened to you two?" said Harry.
"Well, I got back all right," said Hermione. "I brought Ron round - that took a while - and we were dashing up to the owlery to contact Dumbledore when we met him in the entrance hall - he already knew - he just said, 'Harry's gone after him, hasn't he?' and hurtled off to the third floor." (Harry Potter)

If a comma were to be put before when, does it change the meaning?

  • 4
    I think not. It would change the 'reading' - the phrasing, and an actor playing the part would have to adjust her internal sense of the rhythm. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 17 '13 at 2:20
9

In this particular sentence, it would be possible to add the comma, but it wouldn't change the meaning. It's probably a bad idea anyway, because a comma "slows down" the reading - so it would conflict with the sense of "rushed speech" that we get from the context (and the hyphens!)

But in a slightly different sentence:

We were discussing what to say to Dumbledore, when he walked in the room.
with the comma, there's a pause which tells us how to interpret the "when" clause.
Dumbledore walked in the room just at the time we were discussing what we would say to him.

We were discussing what to say to Dumbledore when he walked in the room.
without the comma, we assume "when" applies to what came before, not what comes after.
We expected Dumbledore to walk in soon; we were discussing what we would say if/when he did.

So a comma before "when" can make a difference. It just so happens it doesn't in OP's example.

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