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The sentences below are from a simplified text of the short story "Luck" by Mark Twain.

And I've found two different versions of the simplified text on Google, with or without a comma:

Version 1:The hundreds of eyes watching him, the worship of so many people did not seem to make any difference to him.

Version 2:The hundreds of eyes watching him, the worship of so many people**,** did not seem to make any difference to him.

It seems, by my lights, that the second version with a comma is grammatically more understandable. The comma makes it clear that there are 2 subjects in this sentence. Anyway, since I don't have the book and I am not a native speaker, I don't know which is the original sentence or correct version.

Should there be such a comma in this sentence? Why?


Added Note: the original sentence is

It was food and drink to me to look, and look, and look at that demigod; scanning, searching, noting: the quietness, the reserve, the noble gravity of his countenance; the simple honesty that expressed itself all over him; the sweet unconsciousness of his greatness--unconsciousness of the hundreds of admiring eyes fastened upon him, unconsciousness of the deep, loving, sincere worship welling out of the breasts of those people and flowing toward him.

Source: Twain, Mark. "Luck." Merry Tales. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co. 1892. Pages 66-67. Web.

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    Version 2 is not grammatical because a comma is placed between the subject and the verb of the clause. That is very unusual. – JayHook Jan 14 '15 at 2:05
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    "Learn English as you read and listen to a weekly show with short stories by famous American authors. Adaptations are written at the intermediate and upper-beginner level and are read one-third slower than regular VOA English." Learning English. American Stories. Voice of America. – user6951 Jan 14 '15 at 4:01
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    Is the link to your first sentence correct? I don't see the adapted story there. – user6951 Jan 14 '15 at 4:05
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    Thank you for the added note. Wow, great master's work really! The first adapted sentence can be found many on Google. But I do doubt whether it is correct. For the second sentence, I am quite sure it's grammatically correct. – dennylv Jan 14 '15 at 4:51
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    Ironically, the simplified version is a lot harder to read correctly in this particular case. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 14 '15 at 5:18
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The worship of so many people can be seen as a nonessential appositive phrase, and the link given in pyobum's answer supplies one reason for setting it off with commas.

It can also be seen as not being an appositive because we can reasonably see it as an element in addition to "the eyes" instead of a repetition of it.

Comma usage, like much else in grammar, can be a very messy business. I am quite sure that one could find authoritative sources giving rules saying the comma should be there, shouldn't be there, or is optional.

I use my 45 years of heavy reading as a guide in this case, to say that I'm quite sure that it's optional and that most experienced native speakers would prefer it there. But I don't think anyone can say that either choice is better.

English learners will, in most cases, best learn how such a choice affects a reader's experience by involvement with the language and by discussing with people how they think and feel when reading 1 compared to 2.

In brief, the comma probably helps me as a reader to group together the material that comes before the predicate slightly faster or surer than I would without it. In this example, if I read version 2 with no comma, it would cost me very little time and effort to make the same decision, but I believe that different words set in the same (or a similar) grammatical pattern would be more confusing or unnecessarily demanding if the comma was not there to guide me in this grouping or analyitic function.

Consider the following:

A. The taste of an apple, the sound of paper being torn, such things and their description in words are the concern of the poet.

B. The taste of an apple, the sound of paper being torn such things and their description in words are the concern of the poet.

In that sentence, most or many readers would need to pause at the junction of torn and such to determine whether such begins a new conceptual element, or continues to give information about paper or tearing.

I hope that this alternative kind of response is helpful to you or to others.

  • I tend to regard "the worship of so many people" as an appositive phrase, as pyobum mentioned previously. So I think a comma before and after it is kind of necessary. – dennylv Jan 14 '15 at 5:00
  • I think you need a dash before such things in both example sentences. – Ben Kovitz Jan 14 '15 at 5:20
  • I have to correct my words: So I think commas before and after it are kind of necessary. – dennylv Jan 14 '15 at 5:25
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The comma is necessary.

The worship of so many people is an appositive, re-describing the hundreds of eyes watching him. You could also punctuate it with dashes:

The hundreds of eyes watching him—the worship of so many people—did not seem to make any difference to him.

I like your interpretation that the sentence has two (equivalent) subjects. The traditional parsing is that the hundreds of eyes watching him is the subject, and the appositive further asserts that the hundreds of eyes watching him are the worship of so many people. But of course, it works out the same whether you say that the sentence has two equivalent subjects, or one subject described twice. The main thing to understand is that the sentence is equating the hundreds of eyes watching him and the worship of so many people.

Either way you parse it, the closing comma (or the closing dash) is necessary to indicate that sentence is done with the re-description of the subject and ready to get on with something else. In speech, you would indicate the same thing with a change of pitch and/or a caesura.


If you leave out the second comma, the sentence still makes grammatical sense, but it no longer carries the intended meaning. The meaning without the comma is the same as:

Because of the hundreds of eyes watching him, the worship of so many people did not seem to make any difference to him.

or:

In the situation where the hundreds of eyes were watching him, the worship of so many people did not seem to make any difference to him; in other situations, the worship of so many people probably would make a difference to him.

The part before the comma (in your Version 1) is called an “absolute construction”. In an absolute construction you can do pretty much anything, because it’s not grammatically joined to the rest of the sentence. It’s not equated with anything in the sentence, and it doesn’t modify anything in the sentence the way, say, a participle phrase does (though it can modify the sentence as a whole, like a huge adverb). Usually an absolute construction describes something relevant about the situation in which the main part of the sentence occurred, such as enabling it or explaining it. The exact form of relevance has to be inferred from the meanings of the words; the grammar doesn’t specify it.

But as Twain’s original sentence shows, the intent is just to mention multiple facets of the audience’s worship of “that demigod”.

  • Yes, +1. Aren't (at least) some of these 'absolute constructions' also, or perhaps rather, adverbials? – user6951 Jan 14 '15 at 9:18
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    @CarSmack Yes, I think all absolute constructions are adverbials. I prefer to say “absolute construction” here for two reasons: unlike “adverbial”, it’s common knowledge among educated native speakers; and the absolute construction is an important and distinct grammatical form, which people really should understand explicitly—especially non-native speakers, because if you don’t know that the absolute construction doesn’t modify any word within the main clause, it’s easy to misunderstand it (as I think pyobum’s answer did, though I’m not 100% sure). – Ben Kovitz Jan 15 '15 at 21:36
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The appropriateness of the comma depends on how the grammar of the sentence is analyzed.

"The hundreds of eyes watching him" in Version 1 could be interpreted as a progressive participle phrase, with "the worship of so many people" as the subject, and "did not seem to make any difference to him" as the predicate.

In Version 2 (with the comma), we can view "The hundreds of eyes watching him" as the subject, "the worship of so many people" as an appositive phrase restating/renaming the subject, and "did not seem to make any difference to him" as (still) the predicate.

Unfortunately, Mr. Clemens (Twain) is no longer with us, so we cannot ask him about his sentence directly, but my impression of the sentence leads me to believe that "the worship of so many people" is an appositive phrase and the commas before and after it are necessary and correct.

You can learn about appositive phrases here.

  • Thank you for your answer. There is a "the" in front of "hundreds of eyes", so I prefer it to be a noun phrase decorating by "watching him" as a progressive participle. If it is a progressive participle phrase as a whole, I think it had better go without "the". – dennylv Jan 14 '15 at 3:05
  • I agree with your analysis. We could change "watching" to "on" and get a similar meaning: "The hundreds of eyes on him, the worship of so many people, did not seem to make any difference to him." – pyobum Jan 14 '15 at 3:27

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