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Is there a de jure standard in print media for comma placement following a coordinating connector?

The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.


Josie originally wanted to be a teacher, but, after finishing university, she decided to become a lawyer instead.

Josie originally wanted to be a teacher, but after finishing university she decided to become a lawyer instead.

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The one which you think makes the text easier for the reader to read. – Barrie England Sep 3 '12 at 13:20
This question seems to be getting hammered, vote-wise. I'm not seeing any reason why; can someone explain? (Okay, after reading the "answer" that the OP made, I can see why it would be voted down, since it doesn't follow the SE format. But the question still seems valuable.) – Beska Sep 5 '12 at 12:27
Indeed, I wish all of our questions were so well researched. – Kit Z. Fox Sep 5 '12 at 12:53

Sentence № 1 is punctuated correctly, and Trask’s advice is perfectly compatible with the advice of Harcourt Publishers.

The question poses a false dilemma. You have read the advice you found in Writer’s Harbrace Handbook as a blanket prohibition of a comma after a coordinating connector. But that’s not so. The advice is that a comma is not necessary or desirable for the purpose of separating a coordinating connector from the clause that follows.

I read “it is incorrect to use a comma after a coordinating conjunction” to mean that when you write such a conjunction you should not on that account then write a comma. If a comma is necessary in that place for a reason having nothing to do with the conjunction, then the advice is irrelevant and should not be followed slavishly.

In the example, there isn’t a comma after the connector for that reason: your eyes deceive you. The clause that follows the connector in the example is “cats scare me witless”. That is, before inserting the parenthetic expression, the connected sentence has no comma there:

I like dogs, but cats scare me witless.

After inserting the parenthetic expression, the meaning is likely to be misconstrued without using bracketing commas to set it off as recommended by Dr Trask. These commas are not there on account of the conjunction, so they do not offend Writer’s Harbrace Handbook:

I like dogs, but<, I am embarrassed to admit in the presence of polite company,> cats scare me witless.

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Put a comma between dogs and but. If you feel that in the presence of polite company is a strong interruption to the sentence, you should set it off with a pair of commas. No others are needed. For more on this, and on punctuation more generally, see Larry Trask’s ‘Guide to Punctuation’.

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Surely at least one more comma is needed to distinguish between being making an admission in polite company and cats in the presence of polite company? (Admittedly it's a bad choice of words in the first place.) – TimLymington Aug 29 '12 at 15:31
Personally, I feel that "in the presence of polite company" is a sufficiently strong interruption to the sentence that I would follow it with the word "that" to aid legibility. Setting it off with commas then becomes unnecessary. – FumbleFingers Aug 29 '12 at 15:32
I agree with both, but there is perhaps a little room for discretion here depending on context. – Barrie England Aug 29 '12 at 15:41
If you feel that in the present company is a strong interruption to the sentence, you could set it off with dashes and avoid comma congestion: I like dogs, but - and I am embarrassed to admit this in the present company - cats scare me witless. (I'm assumimg my reading rather than the illogical 'in the presence of polite company' reading was intended.) – Edwin Ashworth Aug 29 '12 at 15:52
@EdwinAshworth: Subject to Trask's advice: 'Use the dash carefully: overuse of dashes will give your writing a breathless and disjointed appearance.' – Barrie England Aug 29 '12 at 15:59

If those are the only three choices, I would definitely use the first. “I am embarrassed to admit in polite company” is enough of an interruption that it needs to be set off. Excluding those commas makes it easy to initially misread the sentence as saying you're embarrassed to admit that you like dogs.

Given more leeway, I’d set “I am embarrassed to admit in polite company” off with dashes or restructure the sentence completely, e.g.:

Although I like dogs, cats scare me witless – a fact that I’m embarrassed to admit in polite company.

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Sentence 1 adequately conveys this meaning:

I like dogs but I hate cats, and I am embarrassed to admit the latter.

This is what I think you are trying to say.

Sentence 2 is not properly punctuated because of the second comma.

Sentence 3 does mean the same thing as sentence 1, but might lead the reader down the wrong road. It seems like you are going to say something embarrassing about your liking dogs:

I like dogs, but I am embarrassed to admit in polite company that I what like them for is lunch.

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