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I am using a sentence of the following form in a formal document.

This paper shows strong, yet very circuitous, analysis.

The sentence is expected to express that the analysis is strong but circuitous.

I have always put commas as shown above. However when reading it aloud it appears that the second comma impedes the reading. Perhaps it should not be there, but then it may change the meaning of the sentence and emphasize circuitous instead of strong analysis.

What are the rules for commas for such yet/but phrases?

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Like the coordinating conjunction but, the coordinating conjunction yet can coordinate various sorts of things. The difference between them is that yet is even more emphatic when used this way than is but.

In short sentences like yours, where the items coordinated are themselves short, a comma would just slow things down:

  • His submission was an unexpected and strong entry.
  • His submission was an unexpected and unconvincing entry.
  • His submission was a surprising but ultimately unconvincing entry.
  • His submission was a surprising yet ultimately unconvincing entry.

Here you have a strong yet circuitous analysis on your hands.

  • very good answer. I think this addresses exactly the issue that the question posed. Any technical rule/cite for this usage? I see that "but ultimately convincing" acts as a sort of parallel adjective to "surprising," but most discussion/literature about coordinating conjunctions revolves around their usage in independent clauses and not about the usage in the question. – Joe Black Dec 21 '14 at 0:14
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    A link to coordinate conjunction comma usage. theeditorsblog.net/2011/02/26/… – Joe Black Dec 21 '14 at 0:15
  • It seems this is a slightly more complex issue than the discussion so far. We know that coordinate-adjectives require comma. For example, you'd say: "It was a narrow, winding road"/"it was a narrow and winding road". It's incorrect to say: "it was a narrow winding road" for coordinate adjectives. So, for the original question, it depends. Are "surprising"X/"ultimately convincing"X being seen as coordinate (parallel) or non-coordinate (non-parallel) adjectives. If they are, then you can either say "X but Y noun" or "X, but Y noun". If they are non-coordinate, then you have to say "X but Y". – Joe Black Dec 21 '14 at 0:30
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Purdue's OWL on comma usage.

Point three seems relevant here:

  1. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

Here are some clues to help you decide whether the sentence element is essential:

If you leave out the clause, phrase, or word, does the sentence still make sense?

Does the clause, phrase, or word interrupt the flow of words in the original sentence?

If you move the element to a different position in the sentence, does the sentence still make sense?

If you answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, then the element in question is nonessential and should be set off with commas.

The sentence "This paper shows strong analysis" still makes sense. 'Yet circuitous' is modifying 'strong,' which is in turn modifying the analysis.

The pacing may seem strange with the comma at the end, but the comma is essential to the intended meaning (subordinating 'yet circuitous' to 'strong').

  • You cannot move the "yet very circuitous" element from its current position and still end up with a sensible sentence here; but that element is still a parenthetical one. You might wish to reconsider this particular test. – Erik Kowal Dec 18 '14 at 11:14
  • An upvote for your answer, because I like the parenthetical test. Very simple to implement. The quoted material specifies that 'one or more' of these conditions is sufficient to justify the second comma. I bolded and highlighted the one condition that is clearly satisfied in this case. Unrelated, but your semicolon ought to be a comma. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 18 '14 at 11:22
  • OK, I understand your intention now. Thanks for clarifying. :) – Erik Kowal Dec 18 '14 at 11:32
  • I think we are forgetting that the first comma can be removed too. The discussion here has focused on how removing the second comma would lead to a something that wouldn't make sense. But if we remove both commas (so that "yet circuitous" doesn't remain subordinate to strong), then we still have a sensible sentence without any commas. – Joe Black Dec 21 '14 at 0:03
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A pair of commas used as in your query sentence acts like opening and closing parentheses: they mark off an observation or comment which is incidental to the main idea of the sentence.

In fact, you can test the necessity of having both commas by temporarily substituting a pair of parentheses for those commas to see if the resulting sentence is still coherent. If it is, then you need the second comma.

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