Original sentence:

Prince Andrew, looking again at that genealogical tree, shook his head, laughing as a man laughs who looks at a portrait so characteristic of the original as to be amusing.

(War and Peace, Tolstoy, English translation)

In the sentence above, shouldn't the comma before laughing be omitted if this is about the participle clause denoting "an action that happens at the same time in the past"? I mean it should be

Prince Andrew…shook his head laughing as a man…

Plus, shouldn't the verb laugh after a man be in the past tense in order to be in accordance (agreement) with shook his head?

You know, the whole sentence should be consistent….


Start with this:

Prince Andrew shook his head.

That's a subject, a verb, and an object.  Since there's only one verb, there's only one tense.  Tense consistency isn't an issue.

We can modify "Prince Andrew" with a participial phrase.  The following is a participial phrase:

looking again at that genealogical tree

The participle is "looking".  As a participle, "looking" has no tense.  When this phrase is added to the sentence above, tense consistency still isn't an issue:

Prince Andrew, looking again at that genealogical tree, shook his head.

The commas surrounding this long participial phrase are necessary.  They have nothing to do with when the laughing happens.  They have a lot to do with how long the phrase is, and they have a lot to do with the fact that the phrase follows the noun that it modifies. 

Instead of modifying only the subject, we might choose to modify the entire clause: 

Prince Andrew shook his head, laughing. 

In this case, the comma seems optional.  "Laughing" is only one word, and it's in the right position to modify the verb "shook".  However, a longer participial phrase makes the comma much more useful: 

Prince Andrew shook his head, laughing as a man with good reason laughs.

The laughter of a man with good reason isn't something that happens in the past.  Well, in a way, it did.  Such laughter happened in the past, is happening in the present, and will happen in the future.  It is an eternal truth, occurring in the eternal now.  It's little different than saying "God is good" or "Two plus two is four".

Also, if the "laughs" from "as a man laughs" (and, in the original, "looks") has to be made consistent with anything, it would need to be consistent with the participle "laughing".  The rest of the sentence is all part of that participial phrase.  Tense consistency with participles, of course, is impossible.

  • I still don't get "laughing"part..and you don't give a explicit expression to " Is(shook his hand, laughing ..) a participle clause about one actions that happens at the same time with another action in the past". And if so. Comma is not optional.. take a look at these two examples I made. "Moth swings the wings emerging from the cocoon" equals "emerging from the cocoon,moth swings the wings" the first one has no comma with it,but if I wanna place a comma,then I need to change the order so as to write more formal.
    – 오준수
    Oct 5 '15 at 23:28
  • Did you get my point? I want a NON-ABBREVIATED form of it.. and I guess it would be like"prince andrew,shook his hand,when he laughed as a man laughs who looks at .....blablabla" right?. If I am right, why author place a comma. I mean ,if this participle clause usage follows the MOTH example logic I made,then the comma should be dropped.
    – 오준수
    Oct 5 '15 at 23:31
  • You was like "laughing modifies the verb shook" then it might not be a participle clause about two actions happen at the same time. And u also said " the tense of "laughing as a man laughs.." has nothing to do with main clause "prince andrew shook his hand" then could you tell me what kind of non-abbreviated form would it be? I mean,this part "shook his hand,laughing.."
    – 오준수
    Oct 5 '15 at 23:40

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