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A Word, Please: Clarity is key when using commas, though there are other rules to consider

Basil twists.
Basil twists. “Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store and, if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up” is among three examples June Casagrande offers in a look at the proper use of commas.
(Vince Compagnone / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s an interesting question posed to me recently: Which of the following sentences is punctuated correctly?

Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store, and, if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.

Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store and, if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.

Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store and if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.

The question came not from a reader but from a fellow editor — a pro whose job is to know this stuff — which proves you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t. And the answer is more complicated than meets the eye because it involves two different punctuation rules.

The first rule at play is summed up well in the Associated Press Stylebook: “When a conjunction such as ‘and,’ ‘but’ or ‘for’ links two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences, use a comma before the conjunction in most cases.”

Our sentence has two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences: “Look for fresh basil at your local grocery store” and “if it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up.” The clauses are connected with “and,” so according to this AP style rule, we should have a comma after “grocery store.”

The second rule at play says that introductory phrases and clauses should be set off with commas. The second part of our example sentence, “if it isn’t available,” qualifies as an introductory clause because it sets up another clause to come. So according to this rule, we should have a comma after “and,” which marks the beginning of the introductory part, and another after “available,” which is the last word in the introductory phrase.

Some “careful users of the language” dislike the use of “headquarters” as a verb, even though it’s easily understood, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.

So if you take a strict interpretation of both these rules, you’d choose our first option because it has a comma before “and,” another comma after “and” and a third after “available.”

So option 1 is correct, but it’s also ugly. The three commas are just too much in my view. Luckily, comma rules leave room for personal taste.

“As with all punctuation, clarity is the biggest rule,” AP advises. “If a comma does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be there.”

AP repeats this general comma advice several times under its specific comma rules. For example, immediately after the rule that says to set off introductory phrases with commas, AP says “The comma may be omitted after short introductory phrases if no ambiguity would result.” So if we had a sentence that said only “If it isn’t available, tell the staff to stock up,” that comma would be optional. But our introductory clause doesn’t begin a standalone sentence. It comes mid-sentence. When AP says to “set off” a clause with commas, that means one before and one after. So we shouldn’t ditch the comma after “and,” even if we ditch the one after “available.”

The rule about using a comma when linking independent clauses with a conjunction comes with a similar disclaimer: “The comma may be dropped if two clauses with expressly stated subjects are short.” AP doesn’t define what they mean by “short,” but it’s clear that in “I quit and I’m glad” you don’t need a comma after “quit,” even though this sentence has two independent clauses joined by a conjunction.

Not all commas are subject to taste or personal judgment. But the first comma in option 1 is. So, as I told the editor who asked about this sentence, option 3 is no good because it doesn’t have a comma after “and.” Option 1 is technically OK. But in my opinion, option 2 is just right.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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