What is the rule regarding comma usage when but is used between two contrasting adjectives or adverbs? It is a vey interesting, but stupid question, and one that I have had a hard time finding a definitive answer to. Or should that have been "very interesting but stupid question" or "very interesting, but stupid, question".

Since a comma is sometimes used to introduce contrast, my instinct would be the way I phrased it the first time, but I can't seem to find a definitive rule on the subject. My own opinion on the subject seems to change with either my mood or slight nuances in the particular sentence, e.g., if the adjectives/adverbs are before or after the noun/[verb/adjective] or if the but seems particularly parenthetical.

A few more examples taken from the web, illustrating inconsistent comma usage for similar constructs:

1A) In case of a fire alarm, please exit the building quickly but calmly.
1B) It was time to quickly, but calmly get out of the water.

2A) Water is an overlooked but essential nutrient.
2B) Carnitine is a hard-to-classify, but essential, nutrient.

3A) This is one challenging, but invigorating climb.
3B) This is a painful, but invigorating, process.

4A) Maidan remains occupied, but eerily quiet.
4B) “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a fun but eerily familiar Star Trek adventure.

  • Generally, you'd either place commas on both sides of the "but [adjective/adverb]" construct or omit the commas altogether. Placing a comma only before the construct would be incorrect in all instances I can think of - it seems to separate the original adjective completely from the subject it modifies.
    – Doc
    Jan 23, 2014 at 23:16
  • Example 4A also doesn't seem to follow the pattern you're asking about at all, it's an unrelated structure. Otherwise I think this was a very well written first question. Welcome to the site!
    – Doc
    Jan 23, 2014 at 23:18
  • Doc- A single comma wouldn't separate the original adjective from the subject any more than it would when appearing between a pair of coordinating adjectives, e.g. "a small, flightless bird", "a dark, stormy night".
    – Mike
    Jan 24, 2014 at 0:42
  • @Doc- cont. Oddly enough, thinking of it this way leaves me leaning more towards the single comma; however, using and instead of a comma, it would be "small and flightless bird", so why not "small but flightless bird". Gah, I can't believe there isn't an official rule somewhere on this subject.
    – Mike
    Jan 24, 2014 at 1:06
  • Interpreting 'please' as an adverb is mean on the dustbin. Aug 27, 2016 at 10:08

1 Answer 1


If the second adjective or adverb is restrictive, essential, as a compound meaning no commas are required in-between-- similar to an hyphenated word in semantic context. If the expression is superfluous extra information commas can surround the expression that is added.

  • 1) B requires no comma as the words infer a complete essentialness.
    – bassrider
    Jan 24, 2014 at 17:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.