Punctuation helps us understand

Read this sentence:

After ten years of training my long time partner, Paula Smith a painter and sculptor, and I began construction on our 40 foot long wood kiln and a log cabin we use as a studio.

Was the writer “training his longtime partner”? Who is Paula Smith?

We read again and realize that “training” is a gerund instead of a verb, so we insert a comma after the beginning phrase. We also add another comma after “Smith,” this time to set off an appositive.

After 10 years of training, my longtime partner, Paula Smith, a painter and sculptor, and I began construction on our 40-foot-long wood kiln and a log cabin we use as a studio.

Then we have too many commas, it seems. We figure that the writer has only one “longtime partner,” so the name “Paula Smith” is nonessential and needs to be set off with commas. The words “a painter and sculptor” are in apposition, so we need commas around them. Perhaps we can clean up and combine some of the identification. “Began construction” could become “began building” or even “built,” if they finished what they started. But then we still wonder, who took the 10 years of training? Phrase is closest to “my longtime partner,” but we wonder if it’s writer or the partner. Maybe both of them took 10 years of training. If we are the editor on this sentence, we have to ask. Let’s say the writer tells us that he had 10 years of training. Then the sentence becomes:

After I finished 10 years of training, Paula Smith, my longtime partner who is a painter and sculptor, and I began building our 40-foot-long wood kiln and a log cabin we use as a studio.

Sometimes it takes a couple of passes before we untangle a sentence.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.