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I have been grappling with the question below for a while now, so hope that you can shed some light on it.

Do we need the first comma (the one in brackets below) in the restrictive nested subordinate clause (adverbial, noun and relative clauses -- all 3) that is embedded right into another restrictive subordinate clause after a subordinating conjunction and if yes, could you please explain why?

See example sentences below (please ignore the actual sentences; I just want to understand the logic of the punctuation for the 3 types of nested subordinate clauses - so for the sake of argument, recasting or modifying these sentences is not an option):

1) This is the country where[,] if you work hard, you get rewarded. (relative clause)

2) We need to talk because[,] if we don't, we will be in trouble. (adverbial clause)

3) London is where[,] when I was young, I used to live. (noun clause)

4) Give me a call if[,] when you are at the station, it rains. (adverbial clause)

5) It is useful when[,] if it rains, you have an umbrella. (awkward adverbial clause)

6) She is the person who[,] if she is faced with difficulties, can handle them very well. (relative clause)

7) He said that[,] if all goes well, he will call. (noun clause)

The thinking here is that the first (bracketed) comma should be dropped as the embedded subordinate clause is restrictive / essential to the meaning of the main subordinate clause (e.g. in the first sentence, for instance, you only get rewarded if you work hard) and in this case treated as an introductory clause to the main subordinate clause with one following but not preceding comma (just as if the main subordinate clause was in the beginning of the sentence before the independent main clause).

If the comma is retained, however, the embedded subordinate clause is read as parenthetical / non-restrictive clause, which, for the sake of these sentences, is not intended (the clauses are intended to be restrictive on purpose).

The partial confusion lies in the fact that some style guides like Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition in 6.32 says in the cases like this:

6.32 “And if,” “that if,” and the like When two conjunctions appear next to each other (e.g., and if, but if), they need not be separated by a comma.

They decided that if it rained, they would reschedule the game.

At the same time, many of subordinating conjunctions in the embedded subordinate clause are also relative adverbs or pronouns and fulfil either an object or subject roles in the main subordinate clause, which then makes the embedded subordinate clause interrupt object / complement - subject (sentence 1 and 3) and subject - predicate (sentence 6) relationship in the main subordinate clause, requiring commas on both ends (just as if the main subordinate clause was inserted between a subject and verb, or verb and object of the independent main clause) - in which case it conflicts with introductory clause logic and CMOS guideline above (actually, do subordinating conjunctions in sentences 2, 3 and 5 have adverbial functions, in which case the embedded subordinate clause acts as interrupter as well, in which case commas, again, are required on both ends?).

Hope this makes sense - any thoughts are greatly appreciated.

I am not really after how to punctuate these exact sentences - more just to understand the logic of punctuation (and especially, if it conflicts like sentence 7 that is similar to CMOS example vs other sentences)

Also, would be good to understand if different embedded subordinate clauses are treated differently depending on their relationship to the main subordinate clause.

Thanks, Paul

  • 1
    Welcome to ELU! Excellent question, Paul. Paging John Lawler... Paging John Lawler... – Adam May 15 '15 at 7:26
  • And the comma rears its ugly (cute?) little head yet again... – Tushar Raj May 15 '15 at 7:37
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    While this is a fun question, there is not a single one of those sentences I would not rewrite for simplicity if they appeared in anything I had written. – Paul Griffin May 16 '15 at 1:55
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Any expectation of a comma in the examples of the OP has very little to do with the subordinate clauses' restrictiveness, but rather, as the OP suggested, with an interruption of their natural flow. When leading a sentence with a subordinate clause, the comma does not force a "parenthetical / non-restrictive" interpretation. Simply, compare the meaning of two sentences:

  • If you work hard, you get rewarded.
  • You get rewarded if you work hard.

None of the embedded phrases in the examples were relative clauses, so the concern of imposing a non-restrictive interpretation is irrelevant. In every case, the embedding did put the interrupting phrases in a parenthetical position--even if they are considered "essential" to the meaning of the sentences.

The reference to section 6.32 of The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition established a legitimate exception to a general rule of commas. If omitting an appropriate comma creates no ambiguity, omitting it becomes a matter of style opinion rather than grammar. Moreover, if we believe an appropriate comma introduces ambiguity, our best solution is to recast the sentence to remove ambiguity.


Considering the options for each example:

1) This is the country where[,] if you work hard, you get rewarded. (relative clause)

The relative clause is where you get rewarded, and the comma is appropriate, because the embedded conditional phrase, if you work hard, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. The conflict between the locative where and the conditional if might be manageable enough, but many would be more comfortable with the extra comma. If the sentence had been written: This is the country where you get rewarded if you work hard, certainly no commas would be needed.

2) We need to talk because[,] if we don't, we will be in trouble. (adverbial clause)

The adverbial clause is because we will be in trouble, and the comma is appropriate, because the embedded conditional phrase, if we don't, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. With such minuscule conflict between because and if, there is very little risk of confusion in omitting the comma. If the sentence had been written: We need to talk because we will be in trouble if we don't, certainly no commas would be needed.

3) London is where[,] when I was young, I used to live. (noun clause)

The predicative is where I used to live, and the comma would be appropriate, because the embedded adverbial phrase, when I was young, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. The locative where and the temporal when are nearly irreconcilable and should probably be separated by a comma. If the sentence had been written: London is where I used to live when I was young, certainly no commas would be needed.

4) Give me a call if[,] when you are at the station, it rains. (adverbial clause)

The conditional clause is if it rains, and the comma is appropriate, because the embedded adverbial phrase, when you are at the station, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. The conditional if and the temporal when seem to be in deep conflict and would work better with a comma between them. If the sentence had been written: Give me a call if it rains when you are at the station, certainly no commas would be needed. The slight ambiguity could easily be eliminated by recasting the sentence to communicate the true intentions of the imperative.

5) It is useful when[,] if it rains, you have an umbrella. (awkward adverbial clause)

The awkward adverbial clause is when you have an umbrella, and the comma is appropriate, because the embedded conditional phrase, if it rains, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. This construction is awkward with or without the comma, but would probably be less confusing with the extra comma. If the sentence had been written: It is useful when you have an umbrella if it rains, certainly no commas would be needed. The overall awkwardness still suggest a need to recast the sentence.

6) She is the person who[,] if she is faced with difficulties, can handle them very well. (relative clause)

The relative clause is who can handle them very well, and the comma is appropriate, because the embedded conditional phrase, if she is faced with difficulties, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. The conflict between the relative who and the conditional if might be manageable without a comma, but many would find it less confusing to see the comma. If the sentence had been written: She is the person who can handle difficulties very well if she is faced with them, certainly no commas would be needed.

7) He said that[,] if all goes well, he will call. (noun clause)

The noun clause is that he will call, and the comma is appropriate, because the embedded conditional phrase, if all goes well, interrupts the natural flow of the clause. The conditional in the context of reported speech is the least awkward of the seven examples and fits the exception of The Chicago Manual of Style perfectly. If the sentence had been written: He said that he will call if all goes well, certainly no commas would be needed.

Conclusion:

The ultimate purpose of commas is clarity. Use one if it makes things more clear. Leave it out if it makes things less clear, and in my humble opinion: when in doubt, leave it out. Most importantly, recasting the way we put phrases together can eliminate most of our comma confusion.

  • Thank you, ScotM, for a very good and thorough answer. All clear now. – Paul S. May 16 '15 at 12:46
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I usually try to read a sentence out loud, and in each of your cases, I would have paused where you had a bracketed comma, meaning I would keep the commas. They're parenthetical phrases that interrupt the flow of the sentence, which, for stylistic reasons, should be used sparingly, but every once in a while something like that is necessary.

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