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We have in an 1858 court case:

"A curious doctrine this,—a singular kind of subtraction,—to subtract crime from crime, and there remains nothing but innocence."

It appears that we are no longer "allowed" to do this. But why not?

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Of course you can still do it. Nobody prevents you from doing it. Nobody allows or disallows. It's all just fashion, like so much of punctuation. Nobody prevents you from wearing a corset or a top hat, either. Most people just don't, is all. –  RegDwigнt Oct 16 '13 at 22:01
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Well for example I can spell "weird" as "wierd". Nobody prevents me from doing that. But if I do so, there is the suggestion that I am perhaps not very intelligent or educated. Similarly here. –  Kenny LJ Oct 16 '13 at 22:03
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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. –  Mynamite Oct 16 '13 at 22:33

3 Answers 3

If you go back another 150 years, you'll see passages like this one from Lives, English and Forein : Containing the History of the Most Illustrious Persons of Our Own and Other Nations, from the Year 1550, to the Year 1690 (1704):

Sir Walter despairing of the Fly-Boats, and depending on the Lord Essex, and Lord Thomas Howard's Promises to assist him, laid out a Warp by the side of the St. Philip to close with her ; the Wind hindring him otherwise to Board her. When the Spanish Admiral, and the Commanders of the three other Capital Ships, found that the Lord Thomas, and the Rear-Admiral of the English, began to do the like : They all slipt Anchor, and ran a Ground, their Soldiers and Marines tumbled into the Sea, some were drown'd, some stuck in the Mud ; the Admiral burnt the St. Philip, and the Captain of the St. Thomas, did the same by his Ship. The St. Matthew, and the St. Andrew, were sav'd by the English boats before they took fire.

The book consistently separates sentences by a quad space, and you can observe certain other admirable consistencies:

  1. Almost all common nouns (and three common-noun phrases—Fly-Boats, Rear-Admiral, and Capital Ships)—are initial-capped. The only common noun not so treated is side, and the only verb capitalized is Board.

  2. All proper names are initial-capped and italicized, excluding the prefatory terms Lord and St.

  3. All semicolons and colons have a letter space before as well as after them.

  4. Occurrences of silent e in single-syllable past-tense verbs are replaced with apostrophes (drown'd and sav'd) or are avoided by spelling with a closed-up t (slipt and burnt).

  5. Most occurrences of and are demarcated by adding a comma to the word preceding it and adding another comma just before the next following and or the following verb. (The only exception to this treatment is the simple noun pair "Soldiers and Mariners.")

Why aren't we allowed to follow these rules today?

Objectively, of course, we can follow any rules we want, or no rules at all. But practically speaking, we follow contemporary conventions, just as the judge ordinary in Hope v. Hope did in 1858, and just as the "several hands" responsible for Lives, English and Forein did in 1704.

The simple explanation for why punctuation like ",—" fell out of favor is that writers noticed that they didn't need to use both a comma and a dash to indicate the kind of break they had in mind.

As for why anyone ever used ",—" in the first place, I speculate that the comma came first in accepted punctuation; and then, when someone wanted to express a more radical break in the flow of ideas than commas normally indicated, he (or she) chose to add a pair of dashes to the existing (and already standard) commas. Only after the novelty of using dashes in this way wore off would the question arise, why keep the commas at all? But this part of my answer is pure speculation.

In a comment, the poster equated using ",—" instead of either a comma or a dash alone with spelling weird with the e and the i reversed. I think, to the contrary, that using ",—" is more like using the spelling weyard (as Shakespeare did) in place of the modern spelling weird: I wouldn't take it as a sign of ignorance or poor education (depending on the context in which it appeared), but I would see it as something of an affectation—an intentional archaism.

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Thanks for adding and providing a definition of "quad space" in your edit of my answer, Gareth Rees. I had never heard of the term before. –  Sven Yargs Feb 13 at 17:03

There is something called "overpunctuation". I once heard a professor of English refer to the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution as "overpunctuated".

As passed by the Congress and preserved in the National Archives:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, then-Secretary of State:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Both versions mean the same thing, but the first contains unnecessary commas -- there is nothing "wrong" with the commas, but they are unnecessary. This is likewise the case in the passage you reference in your question. The dashes suffice to separate the subpassage and the additional commas are superfluous.

We should probably avoid superfluous punctuation in our writing.

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That superfluous comma in the Second Amendment was so superfluous that it utterly destroyed any hope the sentence had of making sense to me. I simply could not parse it at all—I felt I was at least a verb, a participle, and a couple of conjunctions short of a full sentence. Funny how a simple, little comma can do so much damage. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 17 '13 at 0:09
    
@JanusBahsJacquet: Odd how it would make it impossible to parse. English not your mother tongue? Anyway, restated in in modern English the 2nd Amendment would be more like: "Because a well-regulated militia is necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Keeping in mind that the definition of "militia" is the whole body of people of military age and condition. –  Cyberherbalist Oct 17 '13 at 17:31
    
The amended version is perfectly natural and parsed itself quite automatically for me. It was the comma between “Militia” and “being” that made me dissociate those two parts of speech into separate clauses. My brain was expecting the start of a parenthetical clause, and then subsequently utterly failed to find the right place to end it (which makes sense, 'cause there is no such place in the sentence). It is basically a kind of garden path sentence: “A well regulated militia (being necessary to the security of a free state), the right […] shall not be infringed. … Wait, what?!” –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 17 '13 at 17:40
    
@JanusBahsJacquet There are two "superfluous" commas in the second amendment. The other is between Arms and shall. In both cases, they come between subject and predicate. Punctuation varied then as now, but I recall reading that this was considered acceptable at the time it was written. (I, too, found it hard to parse without an explanation!) –  snailboat Oct 18 '13 at 4:29
    
The second one didn't bother me so much, though, since it is between a subject and its finite verb; the first one, being between a subject and a participle, immediately lent itself to interpretation as a parenthetical sentence (as in this very sentence, as it happens—quite by coincidence, even!). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 18 '13 at 12:25

Writing has changed considerably since 1858. Today we would write it without the commas.

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This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. –  MετάEd Oct 17 '13 at 2:10

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