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I find that it is very common for some people (typically English teachers, in my experience) to use a comma before a phrase beginning with "rather than" when it falls at the end of a sentence. For example:

We decided to go to the grocery store, rather than a restaurant.

In the above sentence, the comma seems to be unnatural and incorrect. I can only think that perhaps they were taught to always use a comma before "rather than" when it is used in an appositive phrase, as such:

We decided that, rather than going out to a restaurant, we would go to the grocery store.

This usage is correct, and I have no problem with it. I think that people use the comma in the first example because they are incorrectly applying a rule that should only apply to parenthetical phrases. They might decide that the last part of the sentence is a parenthetical phrase because it is nonessential information, but if you replaced the words "rather than" with "instead of," few people would put a comma there. It just doesn't flow properly.

However, the incidence of English teachers perpetuating the first example is so great that I have to wonder if I have missed a lesson somewhere. Have I been incorrectly removing the comma all these years?

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"Peeving about grammar disguised as a question" is off topic. –  jwpat7 Mar 30 '12 at 0:00
    
It's not really peeving...it's an honest question. –  samiz Sep 14 '13 at 17:32
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4 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

English Teachers are like MS Word's grammar checker. They should be used but not trusted.

You are correct that the first statement needs no comma before rather. Here, the expression rather than [to] a restaurant is essential information for understanding the statement. It also describes or explains grocery store, again indicating it's importance.

Commas separate parts of sentences. Because you don't want to separate the final phrase in the first example, you don't use a comma.

In the second example, rather than going out to a restaurant, you still don't need a comma before rather. Here, the expression also provides necessary information, as in the first case. The phrase is not parenthetical, and it certainly isn't an appositive.

However, you will need to follow the expression with a comma because it is serving as an introductory dependent phrase, as in "Rather than going to the store, we went to the restaurant."

But why no comma before rather in the second example? The word that turns the following expression into a noun phrase, here to be used as the direct object of decided. If we place a comma after that, we separate the expression from the noun phrase, which is not correct because it needs to be part of the noun phrase.

Bottom Line:
First example: We decided to go to the grocery store rather than to a restaurant.
Second example: We decided that rather than going out to a restaurant, we would go to the grocery store.

You might pick up a copy of Zen Comma, which has a much more thorough discussion of comma uses.

On a side note: You seem to be confused about appositive phrases. Although appositives don't provide essential information, not every non-essential phrase is an appositive. I think you mean parenthetical expressions, of which appositives are one type, or non-restrictive phrases and clauses.

Example appositive: "This toy, a 1992 Barbie doll, is a family treasure." A 1992 Barbie doll is an appositive.

Example non-restrictive clause: "Take away my life, which is as precious to me, but don't take my dignity." Which is precious to me is the non-restrictive clause.

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I edited my answer to say "parenthetical." You're completely right! I was using the wrong term. :) –  samiz Sep 14 '13 at 17:31
    
-1. Late to the party here, but there are quite a few things wrong with this answer. First, ‘rather than’ introduces a parenthetical clause in both examples. Second, in “We decided that[,] rather than…”, if you remove the comma before the ‘rather than’ clause and add one after it, that is when you are separating the clause from its conjunction: “We decided that, we would go” is basically what you are saying. Otherwise, you are saying that the object of ‘decided’ is “that rather than go to a restaurant”, which is nonsense. “We decided that rather than go to a restaurant” is not a sentence. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 14 '13 at 17:48
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You don't have to have that comma before "rather" in your first sentence. However, if your intent is to emphasise that the first part of the sentence could stand alone, and the "rather than" part is almost like an afterthought, you could put the comma there (it would be a little more subtle than starting a new sentence with "Rather than", which many authors these days seem to use). Neither way is incorrect, strictly speaking.

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I suspect that the comma in the first example comes from using commas where there would be a natural pause in the sentence. Many websites specifically mention this problem when talking about proper comma usage:

"The biggest problem that most students have with commas is their overuse. Some essays look as though the student loaded a shotgun with commas and blasted away. Remember, too, that a pause in reading is not always a reliable reason to use a comma." [emphasis added]

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In the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, there are two examples of rather than -ing. One, by E. B. White, has the comma. The other, cited simply as NY Times, does not (pp. 797-798). In the COCA, rather than -ing is preceded by a comma about 25% of the time. See here and here.

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