3 Cases of Punctuation Confusion

By Mark Nichol

Two primary functions of the comma are to separate independent clauses and to set off parenthetical elements, and writers often confuse the two functions when a conjunction is introduced. In the examples below, a comma has been misplaced. Discussion after each sentence explains the problem, and a revision after each shows the solution.

1. But we can break free, and at the very least, begin a transition to living life on our terms.

Because this sentence consists of a single main clause interrupted by a parenthetical phrase, no internal punctuation not associated with the interruption is necessary. However, the parenthesis, “at the very least,” must be framed by commas: “But we can break free and, at the very least, begin a transition to living life on our terms.”

No punctuation would be necessary without the phrase: “But we can break free and begin a transition to living life on our terms.” If the second half of the sentence began with a subject, insertion of a commas before the conjunction would be correct, but the parenthesis could be integrated into the second independent clause, rendering a comma after the conjunction not incorrect but superfluous: “But we can break free, and at the very least, we can begin a transition to living life on our terms.”

2. Are the organization’s performance objectives at risk of not being met and, if they are being met, are they being met in a manner consistent with the organization’s overall appetite for risk?

This sentence represents the alternative mentioned in the previous discussion. A comma is necessary between the end of the first independent clause but not after the conjunction, because the potential parenthesis “if they are being met” is rendered instead as a subordinate clause set off from the independent clause beginning with “Are they being met . . .”: “Are the organization’s performance objectives at risk of not being met, and if they are being met, are they being met in a manner consistent with the organization’s overall appetite for risk?”

3. Management may see risk management as a necessary compliance function, or worse, as a blocker to getting things done.

Here, “or worse” is being treated as a parenthetical phrase, but remove the phrase from the sentence to see the flaw in that treatment. The parenthesis is worse alone—or is part of the main clause—so the punctuation should frame that single word: “Management may see risk management as a necessary compliance function or, worse, as a blocker to getting things done.”

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