Consider such a concise law or rule: AviD's Rule of Usability §§:

Security at the expense of usability, comes at the expense of security.

It uses the comma splice. Someone suggested that §§:

[...] either there should additionally be a comma after the first word or, as I prefer it, there should be no commas in it at all. I think you intended the comma to indicate a pause, which is grammatically incorrect. In this case, try an en dash (with spaces), an em dash (without spaces), or an ellipsis (with or without spaces).

However, any kind of dash breaks up the sentence too much, an ellipsis is just out of place here, and adding a comma at the beginning (after "Security,") would drastically change the meaning of the statement. Also, removing the comma altogether just leaves it as more confusing and harder to parse.

From an unscientific poll of some of the other English readers (in Sec.SE), it seems almost everyone agrees that in this case it is better off leaving the single orphan comma. (Someone even said that it is legitimate grammar in 18th century..)

But the more I think about it, it seems to be hindering clarity (at least for that user) , does it? .

So, how should the concise law or rule best be formulated?

Does using a comma really hinders readability (parsability) for a significant amount of 21st century English readers?

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    I think you're simply mistaken in thinking that adding a manifestly ungrammatical comma improves "clarity". If anything, it gets in the way of natural parsing, forcing the reader to wonder why that comma is there (pointlessly, since there is no truly rational justification). – FumbleFingers Jan 18 '15 at 21:08
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    This is not an easy sentence. I assume it means (Security at the expense of usability) comes at the expense of security. [brackets used to group as in maths] Since the sentence is so outlandish, adding a comma is a minor concern providing it has benefit (especially clarification). I disagree with FF that this is not the case here. Using brackets as I've done makes things even clearer to those who understand the maths usage. I'd be tempted to use them, even elsewhere (than in this post). Rephrasing would lose punch. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 18 '15 at 22:33
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    There's a quote from Catcher in the Rye that similarly "misuses" a comma to aid clarity; I think he says "it was pretty funny, in a way". I think it's completely reasonable to use a comma to simulate the natural cadence of speech, even where the rules of grammar "forbid" it. I, unlike some commenters, believe that this comma does make the sentence more readable, as intended. – Omnomnomnom Jan 18 '15 at 23:18
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    @EdwinAshworth I find the ellipsis to be unnatural there, and makes it seem that something is missing or withheld. It's meaning is as you cited originally: "(Security at the expense of usability) comes at the expense of security." I.e. prioritizing security at the expense of usability, eventually winds up coming at the cost of lowered security, not better (which is the counter-intuitive part). – AviD Jan 19 '15 at 0:21
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    P.S. Voting to close a question asking for advice on clarity, due to it being "unclear", is a bit ironic... No? – AviD Jan 19 '15 at 8:00

I don't mind the comma, and I think I see why you wanted to phrase this as such, but it really isn't clear enough to become a "rule of thumb" - if that's what, in fact, you were shooting for. You could clarify it by simply saying:

"Compromising security with usability leads to compromised security."

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    Except that is the opposite of the intended meaning - Perhaps the first part would be "Compromising usability by security...". Also, it is precisely the surprising clarity, once parsed, and the non-intuitiveness ("the twist ending") that actually DID make it become a popular rule of thumb, quoted by others. Similar to saying "Unusable security isn't." (just not as overtly confusing as that one). – AviD Jan 19 '15 at 0:24
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    Oh... guess I misunderstood. So, I guess the lesson here is: you probably did need the comma, and don't clear a space for your "World's Greatest Rule of Thumb" trophy, yet. (Ben Franklin you ain't.) – Oldbag Jan 19 '15 at 1:13

The version with a comma risks displeasing not only grammar Nazis but also the average reader. Because that comma splice is blatant.

The sentence without the comma

Security at the expense of usability comes at the expense of security.

is confusing and may require several readings.

If you don't like the em dash, you could write the sentence with a relative clause or rewrite it, maybe starting it with usability.

Appealing to 18th century usage works--in the 18th century.

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    What makes this sentence confusing has nothing to do with the punctuation. Cleverness, at the expense of clarity, comes at the expense of cleverness. – TRomano Jan 19 '15 at 0:23
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    well put, TRomano! .................And to AvID I say, the original should say "Security achieved at the expense of usability is useless (or unusable) security." At least that makes some sense. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 19 '15 at 1:12

It seems to me that your use of the comma is sufficiently controversial that it distracts from getting your basic point across. Why not simply say:

Security at the expense of usability is self-defeating


Security at the expense of usability is counterproductive.

In my opinion, the following is clearer still:

Security measures that are difficult to implement tend to lead to decreased security.

Unfortunately, when it is reanalysed in this way in order to make its meaning absolutely explicit, I think your original aphorism is revealed as being rather trite and obvious.

  • Unfortunately it's not obvious :-( – AviD Jan 19 '15 at 8:01
  • Also its not just a question of difficult to implement, or counterproductive in general, but the finer point is that it directly harms the cause it is purposely trying to achieve. – AviD Jan 19 '15 at 8:02

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