The professor lives in a comfortable Victorian house with his wife, who teaches history at Carnegie Mellon, two kids, and a gentle, lumbering dog.
What's wrong with this sentence? Most readers, when they arrive at two kids, and a gentle lumbering dog, will stumble briefly. But why?
Let's go over the structure. This sentence, essentially, is a list of things that some professor lives with: 1) his wife, 2) two kids, and 3) a gentle lumbering dog. But a big problem crops up when the reader arrives at the clause who teaches history at Carnegie Mellon. The reader thinks he's reading a list, and quite reasonably thinks he's about to arrive at the second item in that list. Instead, however, he gets sideswiped by an unexpected subordinate clause.
Worse, it's now totally unclear to the reader what the relationship is among this list of things. Is who teaches history at Carnegie Mellon part of the list? Does it relate to the two kids and a dog? Or worse, does his wife teach two kids and a dog at Carnegie Mellon?
Which leaves us with two rules I'd like to share about lists and clauses:
1) Never combine subordinate clauses with lists of items. It disrupts context and confuses readers.
2) However, if you decide to break rule #1, set the subordinate clause apart using some punctuation other than commas. Dashes, parentheses, whatever. Make it painfully clear where the clause is and where the list items are.
Here's what I mean by rule #2:
The professor lives in a comfortable Victorian house with his wife (who teaches history at Carnegie Mellon), two kids, and a gentle, lumbering dog.
This is better--and certainly clearer--but let's see if we can improve this sentence still more. Be honest now: do we really need to know what his wife does? Perhaps these are needless words. So, let's omit them and see what we get:
The professor lives in a comfortable Victorian house with his wife, two kids, and a gentle, lumbering dog.
This version--with a pleasant cadence, the rule of three and no distracting clauses--reads the best.
I'm grateful to Lee Eisenberg and his otherwise excellent book Shoptimism for providing this bad sentence.