Commas in Their Rightful Place

There is no end to questions about the comma. So how would you punctuate this sentence: The roads were impassable and as the emergency director pointed out the situation would continue for some time. Believe it or not, the orthodox rules would say like this: The roads were impassable, and, as the emergency director pointed out, the situation would continue for some time. Let’s see why.

You write a sentence, you wonder how to punctuate it—what do you do? The first step is always—always—to count the clauses. A clause is a group of words with a subject and its verb, and we identify clauses first because every clause is some kind of claim we are making, something we want the reader to understand or believe. Most of what we write for the practical concerns of the day (what is technically called expository prose) is a chaining together of such claims, and how we punctuate tells the reader how to associate and logically connect the many ideas a sentence presents.

Our example has three clauses, all of them independent. Clauses come in two types, independent (or main) and dependent (or subordinate), and it’s fairly easy to identify which type a certain clause is simply by asking whether it makes complete sense on its own. The roads were impassable—yes, that’s a complete thought in and of itself; as the emergency director pointed out—no, that’s not a complete thought because as makes the thought suggest a connection to something else; and the situation would continue for some time—yes, that can be well understood alone. So our example comprises three clauses, the first and third independent, with a dependent clause standing between them.

That, then, gives us the grammatical plan for the sentence, and what decisions we make about punctuating it will determine how readily our reader can build out an understanding from the words we present. The word and is joining two elements, and as a coordinating conjunction, it can only connect two grammatically similar elements. Here, that means the two independent clauses that begin and end the sentence. The subject of the first of those two independent clauses is the roads and the subject of the second is the situation—two different subjects. And the rule book says that when and joins two independent clauses with different subjects, a comma is to precede it. (In fact, if the sentence had read The roads were impassable and, as the emergency director pointed out, they would remain so for the foreseeable future, there would be no comma before the and because the subjects of the two independent clauses are logically the same.) This accounts, then, for the comma after impassable.

All this takes some close analysis, and the danger in such minute work is to miss the forest for the trees. We can protect ourselves against this risk by stepping back from the sentence, so to speak, remembering that commas sometimes, even often, work in pairs to keep elements in their rightful place. The subordinate clause we’ve identified constitutes an aside, an addition to the two independent clauses which is not strictly irrelevant, but also not essential to those two main thoughts. The addition, though, is still fairly closely related (the conjunction as suggests an illustration of supporting authority), and so to keep that additional remark together as the current of the sentence moves along, it is set off by a pair of commas, one where the subordinate clause begins and the other where it ends.

Thus our three commas to punctuate that longish sentence. It’s important to see again that the conjunction and is not joining the first and second clauses; it can’t, in fact, because and can only connect like grammatical elements, and here the first clause is independent, the second, subordinate. The first comma has that one specific function, while the pair of remaining commas has quite another: the first separates and the other two contain.


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