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I'm at a loss as to how I should title this. I have this sentence:

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and, possibly, email.

I am trying to express several things:

  1. We have an option to provide notifications
  2. We can provide those notifications via telephone
  3. I think we can provide email notifications (Further research is required, but I believe the audience already has that context. The addition of "possibly" is primarily meant to emphasize the lack of a guarantee).

Would I be better off with this:

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and possibly, email.

or this:

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and, possibly email.

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It looks to me like no comma is necessary. Why not "We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and possibly via email."? –  WAF Jul 9 '12 at 20:40
    
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/412/… –  user20934 Jul 9 '12 at 20:50
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I don't think I would understand "possibly" in the way that you mean it. "Possibly" can mean "I think, but I'm not sure", but it also has lots of other meanings, and in this case it wouldn't be obvious to me which one you meant. I would recommend "I believe" instead: "We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and, I believe, e-mail." (N.B. the commas around "possibly" are optional, but the commas around "I believe" would be mandatory.) –  ruakh Jul 9 '12 at 21:24
    
For that matter, I also think "we have the option to provide [...]" is a bit confusing, since that normally means "we can choose to provide [...]", whereas what you mean is "at your option, we can provide [...]". In context, it's probably clear enough -- your audience will know that you're telling them their choices rather than describing your own -- but I think "We can provide [...]" is probably better. –  ruakh Jul 9 '12 at 21:28
    
Your first example is actually grammatically correct, although the first comma is optional; your second and third are not (see @Barry's answer). Don't be afraid of punctuation. –  Amos M. Carpenter Jul 10 '12 at 1:53
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8 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I would suggest using no commas at all. I think it's cleaner, and not ambiguous:

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and possibly email.

The other two acceptable choices that you have are (1) a comma right before and, and (2) commas around the possibly. The first choice would make the email option sound further removed from the phone option (try pausing there when saying it aloud):

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and possibly email.

The second choice would look like this, and would draw some attention to the word possibly:

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and, possibly, email.

But all three commas together, though grammatically acceptable, merely comprise clutter (telephone, and, possibly, email) and should be avoided.

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RE tangential we/you: As originally written, I interpret the sentence to mean that the company is sure that it can provide notifications via telephone. It is investigating whether it can also provide notifications via email, i.e. the company may or may not have the technical ability, necessary data, whatever to offer this service. If that's the intent, then it is indeed "we" and not "you". If the intent is that both options are available and it's up to the customer to decide whether and how he wants notifications, then "you" is correct. –  Jay Jul 9 '12 at 21:18
    
Ah, I see. I'll edit out that last remark. –  Daniel Jul 9 '12 at 21:20
    
To my mind, putting commas around "possibly" tends to emphasize it. Like, we are REALLY not sure if we can do this, but we're looking into it. With no commas the "possibly" is less emphatic. A comma after "telephone" tends to de-emphasize the importance of whether we can do email, like maybe we can but does it matter? –  Jay Jul 9 '12 at 21:21
    
@Jay Precisely. Note in each case how the commas set apart a certain piece of the sentence in order to assign a different shade of meaning to it from the rest of the sentence. –  Daniel Jul 9 '12 at 21:25
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Don't avoid commas for the sake of avoiding commas. In my experience, too many people these days "don't do punctuation", thinking it will simplify things, or believing they'll at least avoid making a mistake. The outcome is usually that they introduce more ambiguity into a grammatically incorrect sentence. -1 from me, I'm afraid. –  Amos M. Carpenter Jul 10 '12 at 1:50
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Firstly, a rant. I deplore and detest the word notifications. It should have no plural. It is designed to be an uncountable noun and, therefore, not capable of pluralisation. It derives from the verb notify so it focuses on the act or fact of giving or receiving notice.

Facebook and the rest make me foam at the mouth with the revolting 'You have received new notifications'. No, my darling, stupid Facebook, you are referring to actual notices so just call them notices. You are not trying to say anything about the act or fact of giving notices, you are communicating something about actual notices - new notices are awaiting attention.

You will find other examples where the long word (often ending -ation) is used when the shorter word is better. An example that springs to mind is motivations - no such word in my book. Motivation is the general idea of having motives, so it already carries a plural sense; if you want to talk about certain movites, then just say motive or motives. This practice is the result of people mistakenly believing that longer words make them seem better educated.

Turning to the matter in hand, I suggest a simpler start with 'We are able to provide notification by telephone and, possibly, e-mail.'

Notification strikes me as right here but notice (again as an uncountable noun), or notices might work well depending on context.

If you want to surround possibly by commas, there is no need for a comma before and. The commas act as weak brackets. Take possibly away and there would be no comma before and, so why insert one just because you add possibly?

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Rants are not generally welcome here. For the record, the OED has three citations for ‘notifications’ under its entry for ‘notification’, the earliest dated 1669. –  Barrie England Jul 11 '12 at 7:34
    
That may well as be, but laxity of language hundreds of years ago is no excuse for present-day laxity. I maintain that the primary purpose of '-ation' is to creats a general noun to be qualified, not a specific noun to be quantified. Weak / strong / little motivation: One, two, three, motives. Clear / certain / repeated notification: One, two, three notices. –  Barry Brown Aug 17 '12 at 7:10
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The OED itself uses it in its definition of ‘mourning border’: ‘a black border on notepaper, envelopes, etc., used in periods of mourning, esp. in notifications of deaths, funerals, etc.’ It’s hard to see why the editors should have used any other word. If we are to disallow plurals for words ending in ‘-ation’ our vocabulary will be impoverished. We could have no ‘abominations’, ‘administrations’, ‘abbreviations’, ‘annexations’, ‘aspirations’, ‘assignations’ or ‘associations’, to select just a few words beginning with the first letter of the alphabet. –  Barrie England Aug 17 '12 at 7:37
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As others have noted, the three commas in

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and, possibly, email

are unnecessary; or the comma before and could be retained ("...via telephone, and possibly email"); or the aforementioned "weak interruption" might be set off by commas ("...via telephone and, possibly, email"); or it might be set off by parentheses ("...via telephone and (possibly) email"). The last of these forms perhaps is most likely to convey the idea that email might or might not be available for notifications. That idea is slightly obscured by appearance of both option and possibly in the sentence. Consider a rewording like

We can provide notifications via telephone and (if circumstances permit) email.

Saying "we can provide..." instead of "we will provide..." implies that notifications are optional, and it probably is not necessary to explicitly say they are optional. If for some reason you are required to be explicit, start the sentence off with "If you so choose" or "If you like" or "At your option":

If you like, we will provide notifications via telephone or (circumstances permitting) email.

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I would say, you don't need a comma before "and" (although, you can use it; it's a matter of choice). But commas should surround "possibly". Hence, you can use:

  • We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and, possibly, email.
  • We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and, possibly, email.
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I agree with Daniel, the commas are cluttering up your sentence unnecessarily.

You could consider:

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and (possibly) email.

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Perhaps removing the first comma?

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and, possibly, email.

I've been taught that if a dependent clause is surrounded by commas it could theoretically be removed while leaving a syntactically correct, though not necessarily semantically equivalent, sentence.

I've been taught that if a dependent clause is surrounded by commas it could theoretically be removed while leaving a syntactically correct sentence.

or

We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and email.

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Without possibly, no comma is required: We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and email.

Possibly, when present, forms a weak interruption in the sentence, which can be acknowledged thus: We have the option to provide notifications via telephone and, possibly, email.

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Oxford commas give me a headache. My feeling is that "possibly" does not need to be offset under these circumstances, therefore I would put "We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and possibly via e-mail."

However, I'm old, and still view the Oxford Comma as optional.

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There's no Oxford comma involved in this question. –  Marthaª Jul 9 '12 at 21:02
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Whether Oxford commas make you reach for the Excedrin, Advil, or Tylenol, none of the commas in the O.P.'s example are Oxford commas. –  J.R. Jul 9 '12 at 21:04
    
@J.R. Strange, I'm sure that in the first example (We have the option to provide notifications via telephone, and, possibly, email.) there is an Oxford comma before the "and", albeit the question doesn't involve this matter. But, pheraphs, I'm wrong! –  user19148 Jul 9 '12 at 21:15
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@Carlo_R.: Click on the link I provided in my comment. Once there, pay particular attention to the word "three" in the definition. That may clear things up. –  J.R. Jul 9 '12 at 21:18
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@Carlo: Now that you're getting the hang of it, you should be able to find the Oxford comma in my original comment about Oxford commas :^) –  J.R. Jul 9 '12 at 21:27
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