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I am having trouble figuring out when to use commas to set off "nonessential" information. Sometimes it's obvious:

Bob, who is thirty years old, is an alcoholic.

But other times I'm not sure:

The day he quits drinking * he will start a llama farm

He has his heart set on owning El Duderino ranch * in New Mexico.

In the first case, my ear says that there should be a comma at *, even though information before it seems essential to me. In the second case, the stuff after * is not essential, and yet it seems a little much to use a comma.

Even that last sentence I wrote confuses me. "In the second case" seems essential but I used a comma. Is this correct?

Does it depend on personal style and the length of the clause? Or perhaps I'm misinterpreting the meaning of "essential" in this context?

  • Note that the "nonessential" "rule" is only a guideline. – Hot Licks Apr 29 '15 at 12:19
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    You seem to be mixing up two uses of the comma. "Nonessential infoamtion" could be put in brackets; if you use parenthetical commas instead, they come in pairs. Neither of your examples use this construction, though to my ear the first needs a comma and the second is a matter of where you want the emphasis. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Apr 29 '15 at 12:20
  • I agree with @TimLymington both about mixing up two 'rules' and the comma in the second sentence. Here the adverbial clause in the beginning of the sentece is separated by comma. See this link for that one (look for a pink rectangle) and more rules on comma usage. – Lucky Apr 29 '15 at 12:27
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  • In the second case, the stuff after [asterisk] is not essential, and yet it seems a little much to use a comma. Even that last sentence I wrote confuses me. "In the second case" seems essential but I used a comma. Is this correct?

According to the Chicago Manual of Style it's optional, even though according to them skipping the comma might be a good idea. I'd use it.

It does depend on personal style, as some authors prefer a breezier style, with less punctuation. Read Cormac McCarthy.

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I believe the answer depends entirely on the conversational effect you wish to deliver. Whenever I add in tangential information to a sentence, I find that it is almost impossible to cut down on cognitive load somewhere else to make your sentence as equally accessible as before.

The example of "The day he quits drinking..." where you trail off the sentence is stylistic. It's more about implying that you can't even summon the thought that comes after.

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

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