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How would I punctuate the following sentence:

Furious, John strove to catch Jim by the shirt so that he might throw him against the wall, but once more, Jim was too quick.

Where I'm getting stuck is on whether or not I need a comma before the "but once more" part of the sentence.

I have a similar issue on another sentence that is fairly complex:

When they broke apart, the old warrior bled from many wounds, and for the first time in decades, there was something close to worry in his eyes.

Here, my issue is whether I need a comma before "and for the first time in decades" or if I should leave it out.

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2  
Keep the comma in both sentences. –  Kaiser Octavius Jun 24 '13 at 18:45
    
I would change "but once more" to "but once again." I think "again" simply sounds better and more natural (to me) than "more." –  rhetorician Jun 25 '13 at 17:50

4 Answers 4

This is a compound (and complex) sentence with two main, independent clauses

Furious, John strove to catch Jim by the shirt

Jim was too quick.

Two main, independent clauses need to be separated by a comma, a semicolon or a period. Effectively, these could be separate sentences, and the punctuation reflects that.

but once more is a dependent phrase that is set off from the main clause by commas because it is parenthetical in nature. Parenthetical clauses or phrases are those that are incidental to the main idea in the sentence and are of a type that could be set off in parentheses instead of commas.

so that he might throw him against the wall is a dependent clause that modifies catch and does not need to be set off by punctuation.

Similarly, in the second sentence, and for the first time in decades is also a parenthetical phrase. At times, such phrases are not set off by commas, but when they are longer or more complex, they usually are.

Some would even put a comma after the word and, rendering it

When they broke apart, the old warrior bled from many wounds, and, for the first time in decades, there was something close to worry in his eyes.

That approach seems too choppy for me.

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Thanks for your help on this. I had suspected that I was on the right track, but your explanation really helped clarify things for me. –  Raz Jun 24 '13 at 19:14

This is a matter of style. Both sentences seem to be describing presumably frantic action (e.g. a fight). Commas create pauses and so slow the reading of a sentence down.

I would leave the second comma out entirely in the first sentence:

"Furious, John strove to catch Jim by the shirt so that he might throw him against the wall, but once more Jim was too quick."

And for the second I would take out all but one:

"When they broke apart the old warrior bled from many wounds, and for the first time in decades there was something close to worry in his eyes."

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to commas, especially in creative writing. Use whatever you feel helps the sentence convey the right emotion.

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I agree with ElendilTheTall on how to handle your first sentence. In the second example, to avoid the temporary impression that "they broke apart the old warrior," I would restructure the sentence as follows:

The old warrior was bleeding from many wounds when they [the two combatants, presumably] broke apart; and for the first time in decades, his eyes betrayed something close to worry.

My alterations to the first part of the sentence also avoid suggesting that the old warrior began bleeding as a result of the breaking apart—which I take to be a logical (but not intended) interpretation of "when they broke apart, he bled." The changes in the second part (following the semicolon) are simply for the sake of liveliness; they aren't relevant to your question about punctuation. You could keep the original wording of that part of the sentence intact and punctuate it with the same combination of a semicolon and a comma:

The old warrior was bleeding from many wounds when they broke apart; and for the first time in decades, there was something close to worry in his eyes.

However, I think my first version above sounds better than my second version, perhaps because the repetition of "was" in the second version causes the narrative to drag a bit.

Anyway, my larger point is that a semicolon can be a useful alternative to a comma when you're dealing with the main break in a fairly complicated sentence that requires commas elsewhere. Be aware, though, that a semicolon is stronger than a comma and can impose a significant pause at the point where it appears. Still, I think that such a pause in the old warrior sentence is not unwarranted.

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Another reason for keeping the comma before "but" in the first sentence is to prevent the reader from encountering "throw him against the wall but [= only] once more".

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