More Answers to Questions About Commas #2

By Mark Nichol

Here are three recent questions from readers about the use of commas, along with my responses.

1. Can you tell me why there should be a comma in this sentence: “Such programs will also reduce operations costs and indemnity payments, and improve communications between employer and employee.” It seems like there shouldn’t be, because these aren’t two independent clauses.

It’s common for writers to insert a comma before a conjunction in a sentence when the conjunction does not begin a new clause but the phrases before and after it include their own conjunctions. This effort to make the sentence’s organization more obvious is not wrong, but it’s unnecessary.

The sentence structure becomes clearer if the first verb, the one that’s overworked in its efforts to support the entire sentence, is relieved by being repeated in a parallel position after the major conjunction: “Such programs will also reduce operations costs and indemnity payments and will improve communications between employer and employee.”

2. I saw this sentence in one of your posts lately: “It enables individuals and groups to meet online to collaborate, and to share presentations, applications, or their entire desktop, while increasing reliability and security and reducing costs.” Why is there a comma after collaborate?

The first comma in this sentence does not have the same function as the extraneous one in the previous example. It is the first in a pair of commas that mark a parenthetical. The phrase “and to share presentations, applications, or their entire desktop” may be omitted from the sentence, and the remaining statement will still be grammatically sound.

3. In “Our vision statement is a succinct way of explaining our purpose to others, be it our own staff, our residents or community clients or the wider public,” the two ors make it clunky to me. The or between “our residents” and “community clients” signals that the sentence is about to end, and then there’s another or! Should I have a comma in there somewhere?

If your style calls for serial commas (“a, b, and c”), insert a comma after clients: “Our vision statement is a succinct way of explaining our purpose to others, be it our own staff, our residents or community clients, or the wider public.”

If not (“a, b and c”), leave it as is. However, if that solution seems clumsy to you (I don’t find the final or confusing), separate “our residents or community clients” into two items: “Our vision statement is a succinct way of explaining our purpose to others, be it our own staff, our residents, our community clients or the wider public.” (Insert a comma after clients, or don’t, depending on whether you insert or omit serial commas.)

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4 Responses to “More Answers to Questions About Commas #2”

  • Matt Gaffney

    The writer incorrectly analyzes both examples 2 and 3. The subsequent corrections merely extend the errors.

    In number 2, it’s an error to contend that “. . . and to share presentations, applications, or their entire desktop, . . .” is a parenthetical for “to collaborate.” “And” introduces the alleged parenthetical, clearly indicating that the listed items are in addition to “collaborate,” not parenthetical to it. Remove the comma after “collaborate” and the sentence is both grammatically and logically correct.

    In number 3, the writer’s explanation and subsequent correction muddle an already muddled example. Disdain for the serial comma and a misunderstanding of the intended message of the example are the root of the muddle.

    Written correctly, the third example should read: “Our vision statement is a succinct way to explain (not ‘of explaining’) our purpose to others, be it our own staff, our residents, our community clients, or the wider public.” The writer seems to think that “our residents” and “community clients” are the same and they aren’t.

  • Danny

    I’d argue that the both times “or” is used in #3, the word “and” is more appropriate. The vision statement shoud explain to ALL parties, not to one or another. Granted, in formal use, “or” is not exclusive, but it seems to be used in an exclusive sense in this example.

  • Jean Kearsley

    Regardless of the comma placement, the most jarring error in example #3 is the use of the word “it,” when the pronoun’s antecedent is the plural “others.” (Furthermore, the list of those to whom the vision statement “explain[s] our purpose” are all plural — even though linked by the conjunction “or.” By either reasoning, the proper phrase should be “be they [our staff, residents, clients or public].”

  • Cassie Tuttle

    IF, as Mark claims, there is a parenthetical phrase in No. 2, the sentence is perhaps a good example of why God invented em dashes:
    “It enables individuals and groups to meet online to collaborate—and to share presentations, applications, or their entire desktop—while increasing reliability and security and reducing costs.”

    All three are good examples of why God invented copyeditors:
    1. Such programs will also reduce operation costs and indemnity payments and will improve communications between employer and employee.

    2. It enables individuals and groups to meet online to collaborate and share presentations, applications, or their entire desktop and, at the same time, increases reliability and security and reduces costs.

    3. Our vision statement is a succinct way to explain our purpose to our own staff, residents, community clients, and the wider public.

    Just my take ….

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