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This Grammar Tip of the Day:

The rule: Place a comma before "or" when what follows it means the same as what precedes it.

confirms what I understand about using a comma before the word or — when it explains the preceding word further or gives its synonym.

However, Oxford Dictionaries’ definition 2 uses a comma before or in the first example:

yoga is a series of postures, or asanas

But it doesn’t use a comma in the next couple examples:

  1. Joshua was born weighing just 18 ounces – half a kilo or just over a pound.
  2. By early Tuesday he was dead – a victim of the most deadly of the world’s culinary delicacies, the blowfish or fugu.

Am I missing something?

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    The link to Oxford Dictionaries is actually here: oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/or#OR. I agree that the examples do not use a comma, but should. – Val Aug 1 '14 at 14:10
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    There isn't any "should". Commas are audible; if the speaker produced a comma intonation, there is to be a comma in writing. If the speaker didn't, there is no comma. With short phrases or alternates, the intonation is typically omitted, and so is the comma. Punctuation rules are chaotic, contradictory, and not based on grammar. – John Lawler Aug 1 '14 at 15:37
  • I’ve gone ahead and embedded the “rule” that you are referencing because it doesn’t make much sense without its text, and that text is virtually guaranteed to eventually go dead in the fullness of time, stranding your question. Because of this problem, you pretty much never want to just say “this link” all by itself without telling us what is there. Furthermore, the content of an SE site can be reused in ways that do not preserve links, which again makes the question a lot less useful than simply embedding the material you are citing does. – tchrist Aug 2 '14 at 5:58
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    Sometimes this comma is omitted because it would be confusing. In the last example, there's already a defining comma after delicacies, if another comma were used it would look like a list of 3 possibilities, not a sequence of synonyms. – Barmar Aug 2 '14 at 6:31
  • Yeah, but you have the option of 'delicacies: the blowfish, or fugu' so you don't need to omit it to avoid confusion. For those of us who actually hear what we read, that pause is quite necessary. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 26 '14 at 23:44
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In your first example, the comma is used to notify the reader that "asanas" is a translation of "postures", making it clear that yoga consists not of postures AND asanas, but of postures AKA asanas.

In the second example, regarding Joshua's birth weight, adding the comma is not necessary for the cadence of the sentence, as the hyphen has already separated the "translation" or "definition" part of the sentence from the statement.

In the third example, regarding the unfortunate demise of the culinary curator, adding the comma would have introduced ambiguity, as noted in Sven Yargs's excellent exposition.

As with many things in English, the "comma before or" rule is one with many exceptions, or special cases. :)

  • If you are referring to a particular comment or answer, it is better to explicitly state to which one. As the answers shuffle when upvoted/downvoted, "above" would mean something else in the future :) – Vilmar Sep 8 '14 at 14:20
  • @Vilmar, thanks for the tip. I've edited it to reflect that! – Swift Arrow Sep 9 '14 at 20:23
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I don't believe you're missing anything. I think the examples given are poorly phrased.

In the first, I would use the comma after kilo. Alternatively, I might use parentheses to set off the (just over a pound), with or without "or". I might do the same in the second example, actually, because it resolves the list-or-descriptive-clause? ambiguity that Barmar brings up.

This is probably over-editorializing, but avoiding ambiguity is really the important thing here, not following an authority's prescriptions on comma usage.

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The logical argument for adding a comma before or in the sentence

Yoga is a series of postures, or asanas.

is that a reader who doesn't know what an asana is might otherwise suppose that the term refers to some sort of alternative to a posture (rather than being another way of saying posture). In other words, the reader might read "Yoga is a series of postures or asanas" as including an implied "either" that introduces two incompatible alternatives, much as the sentence "The most feared wild animals in the Sierra Nevada were grizzly bears or cougars" does. The comma before or, assuming that readers understand it as a sign of equivalence rather than as a marker for incompatible alternative options, clarifies that asanas is equivalent to postures, not an alternative to it.

In the example

Joshua was born weighing just 18 ounces – half a kilo or just over a pound.

the writer presents readers with three equivalent measures: "just 18 ounces," "half a kilo," and "just over a pound." The dash following "ounces" stands for something like "that is" and introduces the two equivalents that follow. Although the logic of the "postures, or asanas" example seems to endorse adding a comma after kilo here, the author evidently expects readers to be sufficiently familiar with the word kilogram not to require that the word be spelled out in full—and in the absence of a possible misinterpretation of equivalent terms ("X kilograms" and "Y pounds") as mutually exclusive alternatives, the usefulness of employing the comma to signal their equivalence vanishes.

In the example

By early Tuesday he was dead – a victim of the most deadly of the world’s culinary delicacies, the blowfish or fugu.

as Barmar notes in a comment above, adding a comma before or makes a new misreading possible: that three possible culprits ("the most deadly of the world's culinary delicacies," "blowfish," and "fugu") are under suspicion for the person's death. Of course, that reading is "new" only if the author systematically uses serial commas in lists of three or more alternatives; in AP (or "no-serial-comma") style, the unintended "alternatives" reading is possible when no comma appears before the or.

In my view, the logical argument for setting off equivalent ideas with a comma (as in "postures, or asanas") loses all force in situations involving more than two equivalent terms and no stronger ordering punctuation than commas. But even in instances involving just two equivalent terms, other complications can render strict observance of the "comma before or" rule counterproductive. Consider the third "other example" that Oxford Dictionaries provides:

Spain entered the twentieth century having lost its colonies in the New World and the Pacific in the Spanish-American War or, as it is known in Spain, the War of 1898.

Here, following the "comma before or" rule would produce this punctuation:

Spain entered the twentieth century having lost its colonies in the New World and the Pacific in the Spanish-American War, or, as it is known in Spain, the War of 1898.

But in this case, the intervening phrase "as it is known in Spain" clearly signals that "the War of 1898" is equivalent to "the Spanish-American War"—not the name of a second, separate war. Adding the comma before or doesn't make the sentence easier to interpret; it merely makes a comma-heavy area of the sentence even boggier.

Ultimately, although I recognize the utility of the "comma before or" rule in the "postures, or asanas" example, I think that in many instances the rule isn't useful at all.

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You will use a comma before "or", if it separates two sentences or phrases (macro-level).

In the example,"Yoga is a series of postures, or asanas", the second sentence it is implied - "Yoga is a series of postures, or it is a series of asanas".

You will not use a comma before "or", if it separates just two words in a sentence (micro-level). Example: "By early Tuesday he was dead – a victim of the most deadly of the world’s culinary delicacies, the blowfish or fugu ". "the blowfish or fugu" - separated with a comma from the rest of the phrase, exposes two words in a sequence at a micro-level component, hence doesn't require a comma before "or".

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The usage of commas in this context is somewhat debated. Some claim it's required, others say it's a traditional form no longer needed.

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