Consider the following sentence:

Anna delayed, but did not prevent the rise of the Borg.


Anna delayed, but did not prevent, the rise of the Borg.

Which is more correct and why? Both sound somewhat off to me, and I'm not too sure how the clause mechanics work in this case.

3 Answers 3

  • Anna delayed, but did not prevent the rise of the Borg.

    = "1. *Anna delayed. 2. Anna did not prevent the rise of the Borg."

    That is probably not what you mean, and it is ungrammatical to boot, because to delay is a transitive verb. You can't just delay. You have to delay something.

  • Anna delayed, but did not prevent, the rise of the Borg.

    = "1. Anna delayed the rise of the Borg. 2. But Anna did not prevent the rise of the Borg."

    This is the meaning you are after. The commas set off a parenthetical. Which can also be set off by a pair of dashes (not hyphens), or a pair of parentheses.

  • Okay. I thought so, but the double commas seemed inelegant to me. Thanks for your verification.
    – Newb
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:31
  • 1
    just curious - would you actually use two commas here instead of no commas? i probably wouldn't use commas in this sentence. they're not needed.
    – user428517
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:34
  • If the sentence is as simple as 'Tiddles the cat died', I would dispense with commas. But anything more complicated than that gets parenthetical treatment from me.
    – WS2
    Oct 27, 2014 at 22:00
  • 1
    Really? You can't delay an implied action or even use delay in the sense of "waste time"?
    – SrJoven
    Oct 27, 2014 at 22:35
  • @SrJoven Delay isn't necessarily transitive. If that were the case though, the sentence ought to be "Anna delayed, but it did not prevent the rise of the Borg."
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Oct 28, 2014 at 1:33

This is what I and another person who's a native speaker think:

The former is the correct alternative. If it was a longer sentence, you'd probably have to add a comma after prevent, but in this case and as the sentence is, you only need one comma after but.

As a very detail-oriented person who has spent years on learning and teaching English, I cannot remember a single example of a use of but without a comma beforehand in any well-written books so far for similar sentences (not shorter/different ones), but as I'm googling now, I find out another question on ELU talking about this: Using a comma before "but", but that slightly contradicts what I've thought so far.

There are also punctuation rules on the website of University of Sussex

A joining comma must be followed by one of the connecting words and, or, but, yet or while: The report was due last week, but it hasn't appeared yet. The motorways in France and Spain are toll roads, while those in Britain are free.

A gapping comma indicates that you have decided not to repeat some words which have already occurred in the sentence:

Jupiter is the largest planet and Pluto, the smallest.

It also continues to say:

If you're not sure about your commas, you can check them by using these rules. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can the comma be replaced by and or or?
  2. Is it followed by one of the connecting words and, or, but, yet or while?
  3. Does it represent the absence of repetition?
  4. Does it form one of a pair of commas setting off an interruption which could be removed from the sentence?

It also sums it up this way:

  • Use a listing comma in a list where and or or would be possible instead.
  • Use a joining comma before and, or, but, yet or while followed by a complete sentence.
  • Use a gapping comma to show that words have been omitted instead of repeated.
  • Use a pair of bracketing commas to set off a weak interruption.

It's worth mentioning that ctrl/cmd + Fing the word but among the articles of that website (and not example sentences), I notice use of comma before but where the sentence followed by but isn't a complete sentence!

I'd say based on explanations of a joining comma and a gapping comma (as the subject [Anna] is omitted in the se, and again, discussing this with a native linguist, you better use comma before but in your sentence, but I'd like to hear more about this.

  • Heh! The site wouldn't auto-refresh to tell me there's already an accepted answer while I was typing my answer!
    – Neeku
    Oct 27, 2014 at 22:36
  • Cormac McCarthy is judged by many to be incapable of writing a bad sentence, but I can pretty much guarantee you he wouldn't put a comma before most of his buts. Oct 28, 2014 at 6:28
  • Hmm @Medica. Thanks for mentioning this. I'll take a look, but I notice you use the comma, too. (:
    – Neeku
    Oct 28, 2014 at 6:48
  • LOL at "his buts"!
    – Neeku
    Oct 28, 2014 at 6:49

It depends on how you want the reader to read it. Both sentences would work OK, but how about no commas at all?

Anna delayed but did not prevent the rise of the Borg.

This is the "grammatical" way to punctuate the sentence, or the way you would be taught in school. If the sentence isn't clear because of its context, I would use two commas like in your second example.

Your first example could be misconstrued as meaning "Anna delayed [something]" and, coincidentally, "Anna did not prevent the rise of the Borg". I wouldn't use this one. Your second example looks better to me and is very clear, but I don't think the extra clarity is necessary. No commas works.

  • 1
    Noting that the downvote is not mine. I'm not sure if the commaless variant is as correct as it could be. Would be keen to hear from others.
    – Newb
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:23
  • there is no "correct", just what best communicates the meaning. i actually think rewriting the sentence is your very best option. but that doesn't answer your question.
    – user428517
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:24
  • the best option is using em-dashes, like "Anna delayed -- but did not prevent -- the rise of the Borg", but that wouldn't answer my question either ;-)
    – Newb
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:25
  • 1
    i very much disagree - i wouldn't use em dashes for this. no commas looks fine to me. it really depends on the context and how you want it to be read, though. there is no one correct answer.
    – user428517
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:25
  • The downvote ain't mine, either, but I second Newb.
    – RegDwigнt
    Oct 27, 2014 at 21:31

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