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I keep running into what, in my mind, appears like a problem, and I can't find any informed opinions on it.

Working With Words dictates that when you are paraphrasing or indirectly quoting a speaker in an article you do not put a comma between two independent clauses because you want it to be clear that the speaker said both statements. "According to John Smith, independent clause A and independent clause B."

I am curious as to whether there is a similar rule for independent clauses that are both modified by the same introductory element:

Before the Humane Society opened, the cats in the city were in a very bad spot and the dogs that lived around the county were arguably in a worse one.

  • Working with Words is not a very good authority, I'm sorry to say. It's certainly in no position to dictate anything to a real human being. – John Lawler Jan 22 '15 at 21:01
  • I think it is a great source, actually. You seem to have a very narrow view of "good writing" and one that runs contrary to qualities prioritized by many people: creativity, insight, etc. I'm sure a linguist doesn't have much use for Working With Words; for journalists, whose job it is to report news, not get a PhD in grammar, it is a handy reference. – Nick Jan 22 '15 at 22:24
  • I'm sure I could find an example where a comma would be preferable in an 'According to John Smith, indepdendent clause A and independent clause B.' sentence. I don't intend spending an hour doing it. Never mind your cherished 'Working With Words', if CMOS or even CGEL dictated such a comma usage to be mandatory, I'd burn it. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 23 '15 at 0:22
  • I'm not sure I follow you. Every grammar reference I've ever encountered says to put a comma between two independent clauses separated by a coordinate conjunction. One reference off the top of my head is The Grammar Bible by Dr. Michael Strumpf. In any event, I feel as if I've misunderstood the nature of this board. I frequently consult it for advice on matters of grammar and punctuation, but it appears that it is really intended only for people who have a doctoral level understanding of the English language. – Nick Jan 23 '15 at 15:35
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The Humane society sentence is correctly punctuated. Otherwise the reader might be justifiably upset to read

Before the Humane Society opened the cats in the city...

The Humane society isn't supposed to do things like that.

It would also be correct to add (if desired; I dislike extraneous commas but would use one here):

Before the Humane Society opened, the cats in the city were in a very bad spot , and the dogs that lived around the county were arguably in a worse one.

Please keep in mind that comma use is not written in stone; there is flexibility in its use.

  • Thank you. I am aware the comma is necessary following the introductory element. As to the subjectivity regarding the comma between the two independent clauses both being modified by the same introductory element, I assumed that was the case, since I couldn't find a definitive answer in any reference guide. – Nick Jan 22 '15 at 19:47
  • I'm sorry if I misunderstood your question; what exactly was it that you were asking? – anongoodnurse Jan 22 '15 at 19:50
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I think that the case for the rule against separating independent clauses with a comma in the "According to John Smith, independent clause A and independent clause B" instance is far stronger than the case for a comparable rule in the "Before the Humane Society opened:" instance.

My reasoning is that the source attribution situation is far more likely to be truly ambiguous, since in every sentence of that form the named source might be responsible for the assertions in both independent clause A and independent clause B, or only for the assertion in independent clause A (with independent clause B constituting an observation by the author that the named source did not say or endorse). For example, in the sentence

The President said the Premier's wife is a very tough negotiator and everyone knows what a liar she is.

the comma (or lack thereof) is rather important to helping readers determine with confidence whether the President's remarks ended at "negotiator" (in which case a comma is appropriate there) or at "what a liar she is" (in which case there should be no comma after "negotiator."

But the sentence

Before the Humane Society opened, the cats in the city were in a very bad spot and the dogs that lived around the county were arguably in a worse one.

doesn't present a similar basis for misunderstanding, whether you include a comma after "spot" or not. The biggest reason for the difference is that in the "Before the Humane Society opened" sentence, the introductory clause doesn't set up an attribution that might expire without warning after the first independent clause. Rather, it sets up a time frame that will remain in force until the author explicitly identifies a new time frame. You don't need to avoid separating the two independent clauses with a comma, for the same reason that you don't need to reinforce the "Before the Humane Society opened" time frame in every subsequent sentence (and there might be paragraphs or even pages of them in some cases) where that time frame remains in force.

I'm sure that it's possible come up with instances where the "Before the Humane Society Opened" introductory phrase was intended to apply to only the first of the two independent clauses that follow it. But those instances are better handled by marking the shift in time frame for the second independent clause rather than leaving the comma to do the job. The strict rules governing comma use in the source attribution situation are better seen as being designed to handle a special case than as a model for all sentences that have an introductory phrase and two independent clauses.

To sum up, I suspect that you haven't found a comma rule comparable to the one involving source-attribution introductory phrase + two independent clauses for the more general case of any other type of introductory phrase + two independent clauses because no such rule exists for that case. And it doesn't exist because it isn't really needed except in the special case of source attribution.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful and thorough answer; it seems very logical and well thought out to me. I appreciate it. - Nick – Nick Feb 18 '15 at 17:07

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