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My girlfriend and I were discussing the following sentence:

"Curiosity and diversity were discouraged, at times, disciplined."

I feel that there is clearly a larger pause with the first comma than with the second, and so there should also be a difference in punctuation. I don't have the technical knowledge to explain why, but I would like to know the reasons why I am right or wrong. I would prefer any of the following variations:

"Curiosity and diversity were discouraged, at times disciplined." (Omitting the second comma)

"Curiosity and diversity were discouraged. At times, disciplined." (I know this is technically wrong, but authors do it all the time if it flows better)

"Curiosity and diversity were discouraged; at times, disciplined." (If we treat the second half as an independent clause ["At times, they were even disciplined."] with the subject implied, then a semi-colon should be okay I think)

Can anyone comment on these variations and the relevant grammar rules?

Thank you, Ryan

  • I hear the first pause as longer, but there is not a "double comma" that solves that problem. Adding the conjunction 'and' does seem to solve the problem. "Curiosity and diversity were discouraged and, at times, disciplined." As your questions suggest, you know that the period and semicolon are stretches. – Michael Owen Sartin Jan 20 '14 at 20:24
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    It is almost as if there is a sudden afterthought; as such, an endash would work equally well: "Curiosity and diversity were discouraged - at times, disciplined." – nxx Jan 20 '14 at 21:46
  • @nxx The endash was my first thought too, and probably how I'd write it if I were unable to change the wording for some reason. – Doc Jan 20 '14 at 22:20
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The semicolon and comma are the best option. You have two independent clauses, one of which elides the subject and verb, so you use a comma to indicate ellipsis.

I am optimistic; Kevin, pessimistic.

Ethel lived to be ninety-one; her husband, only eighty-six.

This is noted in the Chicago Manual of Style §6.49, “commas to indicate elision”.

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If I were writing it, I would go for your first suggestion, and simply omit the second comma. Whilst convention may say it should be there, there is an overriding requirement that punctuation should guide comprehension. That is my own view.

'Curiosity and diversity were discouraged, at times disciplined.'

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It seems to me that the correct way would be to include an and like so:

"Curiosity and diversity were discouraged, and at times, disciplined."

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    Or "Curiosity and diversity were discouraged, and, at times, disciplined." I think this is, in fact, what the OP's example sentence is short for, so to speak. So the issue is not so much with comma use as with clarity of meaning. – nxx Jan 20 '14 at 21:45
  • @nxx if you can't or wont use an endash, that's probably the working I'd choose to prevent too much change. There are wordier ways to rewrite the sentence to be more clear and avoid the many commas close together though. – Doc Jan 20 '14 at 22:24
  • Indeed. Or, as Michael Owen Sartin said in a comment, as "Curiosity and diversity were discouraged and, at times, disciplined". I think that is even better than my comma-ridden example! – nxx Jan 20 '14 at 22:26
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To achieve the longer pause, you're describing, you could rewrite the sentence:

Curiosity and diversity were discouraged. At times, disciplined.

The second part of this a sentence fragment, which is "officially" incorrect but commonly accepted in literary work as a means of punctuating a thought, as is happening here. To make it grammatically correct and retain the long pause:

Curiosity and diversity were discouraged. At times, they were disciplined.

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