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If I have this opposition construction with not like

It's all about intimidation(,) not the law.

should I place a comma before not?

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  • 1
    The comma generally represents a new breath-group. When I speak it, I pause briefly, and (more importantly) drop the pitch after intimidation, so I would write record that prosody with a comma.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 20 '14 at 11:07
  • It's the intonation contour that defines the comma; if you hear it, write it. Otherwise not. May 3 '15 at 16:16
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Yes you should.

It's all about intimidation (pause) not the law.

The pause is provided by the comma. Another reason might be that this could be thought of joining to different sentences.

It's all about intimidation. It is not about the law.

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Someone should note that the above advice about putting a comma where you "hear it" or "take a breath" is only (if that) applicable to non-American English. In American English, there are rules to when you do and do not use commas, and they are not based on hearing, breaths or pauses (although certainly there is some overlap). The above comma usage is correct because "not the law" is a dependent clause.

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    Sorry, there may be rules in America, but nobody pays any attention to them. The Grammar Enforcement Agency never got established, after all. Btw, "not the law" is not a clause -- no subject, no verb. May 3 '15 at 17:10
  • Welcome to the ELU :-). This remark is more appropriate for a comment. To turn it into a full answer you might cite the rule which specifically answers the OP's question and provide the reference for it.
    – Lucky
    May 3 '15 at 19:26
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Place the comma where you have it.

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Place the comma where you hear it.

Commas, like full stops, are used to indicate intonation;
the intonation curve that the comma represents is not a pause.
It's a place where the speaker can pause, but normally doesn't.

The comma intonation is a sine curve: mid - high - low - mid.
It's the intonation one uses in counting, or lists: thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, ...

So when you hear such an intonation profile in speech, you can put in a comma in writing;
conversely, when you're reading and come on a comma, your mind's ear should hear it.

If what your mind's ear hears in that case sounds terrible, you're reading a writer who doesn't understand how to use commas. Perhaps they'd been taught a bunch of silly rules about which words you can put a comma before, instead of the truth. Despite all our efforts, this still happens.

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  • Footnote, more or less: One obvious conclusion from this is that the special comma usage that is called the "Oxford comma" is not special at all -- just a normal, audible, comma. Further, it is obvious that omitting that comma results in incorrect punctuation. Style guides that say otherwise are simply ignorant and should be ignored. Jun 20 '14 at 15:40
  • Are there other names in the linguistic literature for what you call "high", "low", and "mid" tones? I searched for it online and didn't find it mentioned: I found mentions of the "falling", "rising", "fall-rise", "level" tones and so on -- did you mean any of these? Jan 11 '20 at 19:20

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