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Commas with conjunctions and adverbs

I recently responded to a comma question on another website that really made me think. The question pertained to commas in sentences that have conjunctions followed by conjunctive adverbs. I am reposting my response here because (1) it was an interesting question and (2) my response may help people who have a similar question.

Go here for the original post and discussion. (external site, new window)

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You asked a complex question, but I will take a crack at explaining how to use commas in your sample.

Let’s use this sample: “The rider had a lot of experience, but, nevertheless, could not control the wild stallion.”

FIRST, THE EASY PART: COMMA BEFORE CONJUNCTIONS

This sentence should not have a comma before “but” because the text that follows is not an independent clause.

If you were to remove “nevertheless,” the sentence would be structurally identical to the sentences described in this post, as follows: “The rider had a lot of experience but could not control the wild stallion.” It has no subject following “but” and, therefore, does not need a comma before “but” (similar to this sentence).

In brief: If you have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction. Otherwise, don’t.

SECOND, THE HARD PART: COMMAS AROUND CONJUNCTIVE ADVERBS

Now, let’s think about your question specifically and examine the commas around conjunctive adverbs, including “nevertheless.” Let’s add a subject to the second part of the sentence (which requires adding the comma before the conjunction) and see what happens.

First approach: Some people say you should use commas around “nevertheless” because “nevertheless” and similar words are conjunctive adverbs, which are set off from the rest of the sentence with commas. Using the commas around conjunctive adverbs following conjunctions can make a sentence sound choppy, but this advice represents strict adherence to comma rules.

Following this advice gives you “The rider had a lot of experience, but, nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.”

Second approach: Other people say you can omit the comma between the conjunction and the conjunctive adverb because it does not contribute to clarity. This advice represents a relaxation of comma rules and results in a smoother-sounding sentence.

Following this advice gives you “The rider had a lot of experience, but nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.”

As most of my writing is technical, I use the first approach: use commas around the conjunctive adverb. If the sentence sounds choppy, rather than omitting the comma before the conjunctive adverb, I would revise the sentence to reduce the need for commas, such as by omitting the second subject.

Here’s the point: The comma before the conjunction and the commas around conjunctive adverbs are separate issues. Adding commas (or not) around the conjunctive adverb does not affect the comma before the conjunction, and adding a comma before the conjunction does not affect the commas around the conjunctive adverb.

For example, see my previous statement: “It has no subject following ‘but’ and, therefore, does not need a comma before ‘but.’ ”

Here, we see the sentence does not need a comma before the conjunction “and” because the remaining text is not an independent clause. The text “therefore, does not need a comma before ‘but’ ” is not a complete sentence. However, this example still needs commas around the conjunctive adverb “therefore.”

If we add a subject to the second part, we will use a comma before the conjunction, as noted in this post. We also still need the commas around the conjunctive adverb “therefore.” The result is as follows: “It has no subject following ‘but,’ and, therefore, it does not need a comma before “but.”

SUMMARY OF COMMA USE FOR CONJUNCTIONS FOLLOWED BY CONJUNCTIVE ADVERBS

To summarize, with examples:

1. The rider had a lot of experience but could not control the wild stallion.
(no second subject and no comma before the conjunction)

2. The rider had a lot of experience, but he could not control the wild stallion.
(second subject and comma before the conjunction)

3. The rider had a lot of experience but, nevertheless, could not control the wild stallion.
(no second subject and no comma before the conjunction, commas around the conjunctive adverb)

4. The rider had a lot of experience, but, nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.
(first approach, strict: second subject and comma before the conjunction, commas around the conjunctive adverb)

5. The rider had a lot of experience, but nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.
(second approach, relaxed: second subject and comma before the conjunction, comma only following the conjunctive adverb)

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Solving Confusion Caused by Commas

(A Twitter friend pointed out that a serial comma can cause confusion. This post is in response. In this post, I show that the serial comma doesn’t cause the confusion but that the overall sentence structure causes the confusion. By fixing the sentence structure, I solve the problem.)

Commas are necessary for helping the reader understand your writing. They separate elements within sentences that each have a unique meaning. With commas in correct places, the reader, then, can identify each part of a sentence that has s separate meaning and can make sense of the whole sentence.

But correct commas use can also lead to confusion in one particular instance. Consider this sentence:

Nancy gave the medicine to Tom, her brother, and her daughter.

The commas are correct in this sample, but they create a problem. Did Nancy give the medicine to (a) Tom, and (b) her brother, and (c) her daughter, meaning did she give the medicine to 3 people? Or did she give the medicine to only 2 people: Tom (assuming that Tom is her brother) and her daughter?

The problem is that we don’t know whether Tom is her brother or whether Tom and her brother are two different people.

If I had written “Nancy gave the medicine to Tom, her brother,” then the sentence would clearly indicate that Tom and her brother are the same person. Here, her brother is an appositive for Tom, indicating that her brother is simply another way of saying Tom. In the sample, however, we have a series of three with and following her brother, so the reader can’t be sure that her brother is Tom. In short, the sample is confusing.

But we can solve this confusion by fixing the sentence structure.

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