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He was watching, wide-eyed, his house being demolished.

Should there be commas around wide-eyed? There are some examples online but its like half-half. Some of them use it, some don't.

3 Answers 3

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In this particular case, without any further evidence or context to the contrary, the commas are correct.
There is a detailed explanation on this grammar site. The examples given in the section "What Is Parenthetical Punctuation?" are relevant.

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  • I'm having a hard time imagining any argument that the given sentence could survive without the commas. One might imagine a sentence like "He was running quickly down the sidewalk," which could set "quickly" off as a parenthetical or not, but we have a direct object here. I can't think of another perfectly parallel example that could do without the commas... "He watched quietly the movie"? "He punched vigorously his brother"? Feb 16 at 18:22
  • @AndyBonner As you can see from the other answer, the use of commas is debateable and Ronald is probably right! I think we all would probably agree there should be a comma after "wide-eyed" in the OP's version. But you could probably rephrase the sentence to do without them. Feb 16 at 23:21
  • I'm not sure the sentence as given is entirely grammatical. "He was watching, wide-eyed, as his house..." is totally fine, but "watching, wide-eyed, his house" gives my brain a little glitch every time I read it. Feb 17 at 3:04
  • @DarthPseudonym To add "as" you need to make even more changes: instead of "as his house being demolished" is no good, so you need "as his house was being demolished". That's fine, but it's more passive and detached, compared to the original, which is perfectly grammatical as is. The "wide-eyed" is parenthetical, and the sentence works if you remove it: "He was watching his house being demolished".
    – amalloy
    Feb 17 at 9:46
  • Yes, I'm aware there are more changes needed, I wasn't saying my proposed change was the full alteration, just addressing the parenthetical. Feb 17 at 14:14
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Allow me to disagree politely with Peter Jennings, always bearing in mind that the use of commas is largely a personal choice.

I see two distinct ideas in the sentence. The first is that he was watching wide-eyed. The second is that he was watching his house being demolished.

The obvious pause in the sentence comes after wide-eyed. You could begin or end the sentence with wide-eyed as an alternative (albeit somewhat uncomfortably). In either case, you would use a single comma before or after wide-eyed.

As a similar example, I would write: He was walking slowly, his thoughts on his career. Clearly, you would not insert a comma before slowly. Why use one before wide-eyed? It serves exactly the same function of modifying the verb.

You might argue that you wanted the reader to pause after the word watching. Well, then, fair enough. Insert your comma. It's your call.

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  • Ronald, I totally agree, it is a matter of personal choice and your answer is (at least) as valid as mine. BTW, did you follow the link? My answer was based on the "What Is Parenthetical Punctuation?" section. Feb 16 at 23:08
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    Actually, I politely disagree with the polite disagreement! Aside from the fact that all linguistic conventions are more or less arbitrary, and represent us all collectively "getting in the habit" of doing it a certain way— aside from that, I would argue that some commas are optional and some are required. It's certainly true that we could rearrange the sentence to make them optional, but in the example given —I don't think you could separate a verb from its direct object by injecting an adverb or adverbial clause, without that clause being set off by (required) parenthetical commas. Feb 17 at 1:09
  • Thank you guys! I really appreciate your help!
    – Nick07
    Feb 18 at 19:17
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In this context, “he was watching, wide-eyed, his house” means that he was watching and wide-eyed. The adjective is modifying the subject rather than the object. You could also write, “Wide-eyed, he was watching his house ....”

Without the commas, a sentence like “He was watching, wide-eyed, houses ...” would have become, “He was watching wide-eyed houses ....” Then the adjective would be appearing to modify the object, houses, rather than the subject, he.

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