Are either of these two variants of this sentence grammatically correct?

It offers evidence of the nonexistence of free will, which you didn't believe existed


It offers evidence, of the nonexistence of free will, which you didn't believe existed

Meaning it was evidence of the nonexistence of free will that was not believed to exist, not free will.


Both are correct, but the additional comma in the second sentence changes the meaning. It is a very subtle shift in context:

In the first sentence, "you" does not believe in the nonexistence of free will, regardless of the evidence.

In the second sentence, "you" did not believe there was evidence supporting the nonexistence of free will.

| improve this answer | |
  • I heartily agree that the change affected by the additional comma is subtle. So subtle that I think most readers would not understand the intended meaning. I think most people would read both sentences as inferring that "you" does not believe in the nonexistence of free will. And, would thus regard the addition of the comma as uncomfortable and ungrammatical. Which, technically, it is not. But if I were the author, I would try to reword the 2nd example to provide greater clarity. – Corvus B Dec 8 '15 at 5:52

Both are OK, but have different meanings.

The comma introduces a pause intended to disconnect the following dependent clause from the noun phrase immediately preceding the dependent clause. According to that rule, in the sentence

It1 offers evidence2 of the nonexistence3 of free will4 , which you didn't believe existed.

the 'which' relative pronoun stands not for "free will", but for one of the other [pro]nouns in the main clause. Which one? 1, 2 or 3? Because no other intervening construct exists, it ought to be the next one to the left, "nonexistence". And that makes the sentence sound a bit awkward. Evidence of nonexistence which you didn't believe existed? Can nonexistence actually exist?

To combat that awkwardness the additional intervening construct, a comma whose role is to unify words into the phrase to be ignored, is added:

It1 offers evidence2 , {of the nonexistence of free will}3 , which you didn't believe existed.

Here, the 'which' pronoun now stands not for the entire explanatory phrase (the curly-brace enclosed construct), but for the next noun to the left of it, "evidence".

The explanatory phrase ("of the nonexistence of free will") can be easily removed from the sentence without changing the meaning.

It offers evidence which you didn't believe existed.

| improve this answer | |
  • The problem is that "evidence" by itself needs the restrictive clause "of the nonexistence of free will", and you can't split off restrictive clauses with commas. So this doesn't actually work properly. – Nathan Tuggy Nov 3 '15 at 0:59
  • OP here. Victor Bazarov, but the "of the nonexistence of free will" part is essential to the correct understanding of the sentence. It's not speaking of just any evidence but specifically evidence of the nonexistence of free will. @Nathan Tuggy, does that mean that neither variant works properly if the intended meaning is that "evidence of the nonexistence of free will" is what's not believed in? Can the "which you didn't believe existed" part refer to the whole "evidence of the nonexistence of free will" part? – Martin Nov 3 '15 at 7:17
  • @NathanTuggy, I don't see your answer that I could pick on... – Victor Bazarov Nov 4 '15 at 0:21
  • BTW, without the context there is no proof that the restrictive clause is not an explanatory phrase that can be omitted. Let's dance! – Victor Bazarov Nov 4 '15 at 0:25
  • I'm with Victor - the version with commas is making the topic of the evidence subsidiary and parenthetical. But it is not making the sentence ungrammatical. In fact, the questioner is specifically keen to point out it is the existence of evidence which is in doubt, making the version with commas the more appropriate of the two. – Euan M Nov 17 '15 at 10:20

Both sentences are confusing. However, the second is also ungrammatical, since it detaches a restrictive clause from what it modifies by using a comma.

So instead of using either option, rephrase something like this:

It offers unexpected evidence of the nonexistence of free will.

Or, more explicitly:

It offers evidence you didn't expect of the nonexistence of free will.

In both cases, the clause that explains how this evidence would be surprising to the person being addressed is kept close to "evidence" itself. It's fine to push "Of the nonexistence …" further away instead, since it's very clear what that can and cannot modify, and "expect" doesn't qualify, either grammatically or in basic meaning.

You could even shuffle it around still more to get this version, which preserves the nearness of both clauses:

You didn't believe any existed, but this offers evidence of the nonexistence of free will.

Here, "any" refers to the "evidence" which will show up later in the sentence. This version has a bit of rhetorical flourish, but it sacrifices a small amount of clarity. For a fluent speaker, that's not a problem, but in other contexts that might not be a good idea.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.