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Compare these 3 sentences:

  1. Both are based on librsync, but above that they behave quite differently.
  2. Both are based on librsync, but above that, they behave quite differently.
  3. Both are based on librsync, but, above that, they behave quite differently.

I found the first one hard to parse (I needed to read it more than once to actually make sense of it). The second is far easier, and the third has oh-so-many commas.

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7  
Rather than above that, I'd be more inclined to say, beyond that, apart from that, or besides that. –  Steve Melnikoff May 17 '11 at 19:12
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@Steve: “above that” is meant in a technical sense (in context, “both” refers to two programs built on top of the librsync library; the differences between the programs are in their upper layers, above librsync.) –  Gilles May 17 '11 at 20:46
    
Oh I see! In that case, I withdraw my previous comment. :-) –  Steve Melnikoff May 17 '11 at 22:16
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7 Answers

In one school of thought, the first and third sentences are correct but not the second. We refer to Larry Trask's Guide to Punctuation to substantiate this claim.

In the second sentence, the second comma is a mistake (it is not a listing/joining/gapping/bracketing comma). The last two commas in the third sentence are an optional pair of bracketing commas to set off the weak interruption above that.

Note that the joining commas before but in the first and third sentences are optional.

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I'm not sure I agree with the list of rules linked - who says there are only those four, precise, species of comma? What analysis has been done to come to this conclusion? But in any case, to my mind the rules don't actually rule out the second example in the question: the first comma there is a joining comma joining Both are based on librsync to But above that, they behave quite differently. The second comma - the first comma of the second clause - is simply a bracketing comma separating off but above that (without which that clause still makes sense). –  psmears May 17 '11 at 21:49
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@Jasper Loy: Do you have any justification for these rules, or are they simply something someone has made up? I ask because (a) they seem to go against the evidence of general usage (searching COCA gives plenty of examples of, for instance, <clause>, and after all, <clause> which is on exactly the same model as (2), and (b) because the rules would seem to disallow the final comma in sentences like He was strong, but after braving wind, fire, water and unfriendly people, he was in no state to socialise. (in which the final comma is helpful because it avoids the reader having to reparse). –  psmears May 17 '11 at 22:27
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FWIW, I agree with you, Jasper, that the second sentence shows a common mistake. I explain my reasoning in my answer. The 'above that' (or, as I'd prefer, 'beyond that') phrase can be omitted, so it is an adverbial phrase (I think), and should be surrounded by zero or two commas - not by one comma. If Larry Trask also agrees, so much the better. I'm fairly sure that Carey (of "Mind the Stop" fame) would also agree. –  Jonathan Leffler May 18 '11 at 4:42
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@psmears: I'm not convinced the sentence structures are equivalent, though I'm not in any sense a qualified grammarian (beyond being a moderately competent user of English English as my native tongue). The sentence you quoted in my view does not absolutely require the comma after 'strong' (but it is admissible), but it does require one after 'but' to balance the one after 'people' because it could also be 'He was strong but he was in no state to socialise' without the adverbial clause 'after braving ... people', or with the adverbial clause after 'socialise'. –  Jonathan Leffler May 18 '11 at 11:44
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@Jonathan: You can certainly put another comma after but (indeed you might prefer it - and I'm not saying I wouldn't!), but it is not required. Indeed I'm not sure how you could come to such a conclusion - try searching COCA (or indeed any other corpus) for ", but after" and ", but above": you will find plenty of examples of professional, literate writing with both comma styles. On what basis can one declare such a usage "wrong"? –  psmears May 18 '11 at 12:41
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I agree with Boob's rationale for #2, but I might also suggest rewording the sentence to something more like:

Although both are based on librsync, they behave quite differently.

In which case, you only need one comma.

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When we want to compare one items against two or more other items, we tend to emphasize similarities. I feel some differences between what you wrote and the main sentence. –  user8568 May 17 '11 at 22:05
    
@Boob I think that's a fair assessment. And it turns out that the "above that" is more important than I thought. –  KitFox May 17 '11 at 22:38
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If you want to keep that structure, I would go with #2, but use beyond instead:

Both are based on librsync, but beyond that, they behave quite differently.

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Beyond would be correct in English. But if you mean 'above' in a technical sense, that the abstraction layers on top of librsync are different then 'above' might make more sense. –  mgb May 17 '11 at 20:37
    
ah right, my mistake –  Claudiu May 17 '11 at 20:56
    
@Claudia - I think you are right, it's just one possible alternative. –  mgb May 17 '11 at 21:03
    
+1 for beyond; -1 for the punctuation option. –  Jonathan Leffler May 18 '11 at 4:19
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Both are based on librsync; apart from that, they behave quite differently.

Both are based on librsync but beyond that they behave quite differently.

Both are based on librsync but the layers above that behave quite differently.

The 'above' in the original feels clumsy - wrong; I much prefer 'beyond' if only a single-word change is allowed. I prefer my first version to the other two. My second example, without any commas, is extreme in its (lack of) punctuation, but is probably tenable. With 'beyond' instead of 'above', options 1 and 3 in the question are OK. My third option uses 'above', but the extra context added by 'layers' makes it sensible.

Both are based on librsync but, beyond that, they behave quite differently.

I think this punctuation is also tenable (if you have any comma around 'beyond that' - or 'above that' in the original - then you need the pair since it is a parenthetical comment in the sentence and the pair of commas makes that clear). If you dropped the comma-enclosed phrase, you would not need any punctuation:

Both are based on librsync but they behave quite differently.

You could add a comma before 'but', and in times past that would have been added automatically.

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I think the second and third ones are acceptable, but in the third one the second comma is extraneous.

So, I would go with #2

Both are based on librsync, but above that, they behave quite differently.

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First, I kindly recommend you to read this quote from "Gertrude Stein":

And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma. So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …

And as Mike said, the second one sounds correct. like "a comma + a little conjunction ".

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I thought that it is not necessary to put a comma before 'but' if the sentences are not independent of each other?

Often when constructing a sentence with non-obvious grammar, it can be useful to deconstruct the sentence first (in your mind, of course).

This, to me, is correct:

Both are based on librsync but they behave quite differently.

This, to me, is not:

Both are based on librsync, but they behave quite differently.

Therefore I arrived at:

Both are based on librsync but, above that, they behave quite differently.

Actually, I would have constructed the original sentence without the 'they' as well:

Both are based on librsync but, above that, behave quite differently.

I wish I could give a more technical explanation, but I tend to judge these situations with my intuition. (See what I did there? An example of independent sentences conjoined by the use of 'but'.)

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I really like your answer, but why is it so uncomfortable for me to accept your first example instead of the second one (which you rejected). I feel like I need that pause. –  Tshepang Jul 20 '11 at 16:04
    
@Tshepang: I'm not sure why you are uncomfortable with it. Perhaps it is because 'librsync' is a bit of a mouthful. Try replacing it with 'apples'. Or perhaps it is because you are used to pausing before/after a but. Try pausing after 'but' rather than before it. That is the way I would say this sentence with the 1st part qualified by the 2nd and the 2nd part requiring the 1st. –  Charles Goodwin Jul 20 '11 at 16:22
    
I'm used to pausing before but. –  Tshepang Jul 20 '11 at 16:55
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