Grammar question (comma use)

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Should the phrase “where he shot her dead” be set off with commas? Because to me, as is, it sounds like it could mean that “he shot her dead to pay his legal fees”, not that he “sold the Pretoria home to pay his legal fees”.

Any grammar guru’s know the correct answer?

That is definitely an awkwardly constructed sentence, but I don’t think it’s technically grammatically incorrect. E.g., you could use the same construction with different content and it would sound much less confusing, as in “Pistorius…has sold the Pretoria home they lived in to pay his legal fees, it has been confirmed”.

Anyway, you can’t put commas around an adjective clause that’s defining the noun it modifies, so it wouldn’t work to say *“Pistorius has sold the Pretoria home, where he shot her dead, to pay his legal fees”. * You could say “Pistorius has sold his Pretoria home, where he shot her dead, to pay his legal fees”, because in that case the adjective clause is not a defining one. And in fact, if I were the copyeditor, that would be the choice I’d have gone with.

Yeah, as it is, you can’t set it off with commas because it’s giving us necessary information.

That “it has been confirmed” at the end is poorly placed.

And “has sold the Pretoria home where he shot her dead to pay his legal fees” while technically not incorrect can be interpreted two ways. It would be better off being rewritten.

“It has been confirmed that Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic athlete currently on trial for the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has sold the Pretoria home where the alleged crime occurred in order to pay his legal fees.”

I tend toward the opinion that when it’s a “We make combs for people with unbreakable teeth” level misplaced modifier, it’s not worth worrying about.

Not germane to your question, but “guru’s” shouldn’t have an apostrophe.

Why does “it has been confirmed” have to be in there at all? Was the veracity of the previous statement ever in question?

Since the meaning of the sentence is unclear, that makes it incorrect. It couldn’t be corrected by a comma, though. Add dashes around “where he shot her dead” and all’s fine with minimal changes.

Nope. A defining clause must not be separated from the noun it modifies, whether by commas, dashes, or other typographical devices.

For instance, if you write “The street where I currently live gets a lot of rush-hour traffic”, that’s not the same as writing “The street—where I currently live—gets a lot of rush-hour traffic”. The latter sentence implies that you’re a homeless person living actually on the street itself. You’ve taken away the defining nature of the clause “where I currently live” by separating it from the noun “street” that it modifies.

Likewise, it’s not correct to write “Pistorius has sold the Pretoria home—where he shot her dead—to pay his legal fees”. But as I noted above, you could correctly replace “the” with “his”, because then the clause “where he shot her dead” is non-defining and can be marked off with commas, dashes or parentheses to distinguish it from the separate clause “to pay his legal fees”.

It’s really not. From a strict copyediting standpoint, it needs work but functionally, since shooting someone is not realistically a method of paying bills, legal or otherwise, there is only one clear and obvious meaning.

Isn’t this “newspeak?” The sentence was reordered to put the subject first.

The original sentence was probably, “It has been confirmed that Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic athlete currently on trial for the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has sold the Pretoria home where he shot her dead to pay his legal fees.”

Hmm, you’re right about dashes not being quite right. I was trying to think of something that would make the meaning clearer while changing the text as little as possible. I don’t agree (as someone else said) that grammatically it’s fine, because it is slightly ambiguous in meaning and is not intended to be. Yes, you can work out the meaning, but it’s a news report, not fiction - there should be no “working out the meaning” in any noticeable way.

Can anyone suggest an actual punctuation change that would get rid of the ambiguity rather than complete rephrasing?

An unclear sentence can still be grammatically correct. Grammar does not forbid ambiguity.

Let me put it to you this way: parsing the sentence as “he shot her dead to pay his legal fees” required more working out for me than “he sold the Pretoria home. . . to pay his legal fees”. When the intended meaning is the obvious and superficial choice, I don’t think it’s necessarily worth the effort to come up with a phrasing that avoids a strained and ludicrous interpretation.

You know what they say; linguists love ambiguity more than anyone else.

Good writing does forbid ambiguity, and good grammar is part of good writing. In this context, clarity is the main thing. Even if you can tell what the meaning is, you shouldn’t have to even think about it. If there’s enough ambiguity to merit a thread where people agree that there’s ambiguity (like you do - you just don’t think it’s important) it’s not a good use of grammar.

(This is for news reports, like in the OP, obviously).

The sentence is perfectly clear; the reader has to go looking for an alternative interpretation.

I didn’t say that I didn’t think it was important. I don’t know how you drew that conclusion. Grammar defines the elements of the language and their relationships. Good writing demands more than correct sentence structure.

Concur. Shooting someone to pay your legal fees makes vastly less sense than the obvious intended meaning. How would that even work? Do coins pop out of them like in Super Mario World?

It’s pretty straightforward if you’re the heir of the person you’re shooting.

Unless you get caught.

I was first parsing the sentence and thinking “Was he an assassin for hire?”

I also stumbled at “shot her dead”. It makes me question “Could he have resurrected her by shooting her?” But that’s probably another thread. :smiley: