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If a long prepositional phrase is inserted into the middle of a sentence, such as in the example to follow, should a second comma be used to enclose the beginning of the phrase:

What most frequent observers note about these types of clauses is that [,] if the initial connector is removed, what is left normally becomes an independent clause.

It almost feels natural to insert the comma at the end of the phrase, but sometimes I'm unsure whether to insert the other comma, enclosed in "[..]" above, at the beginning. Is it plain wrong to have only the one comma since two are always needed to enclose mid, nonessential sentence elements?

  • "if the initial connector is removed" is not a prepositional phrase. It's okay to use only the latter comma. – GoldenGremlin Sep 8 '15 at 20:17
  • @Silenus Actually, it is for modern grammars. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 8 '15 at 23:35
  • @Araucaria, really? I'm no expert in contemporary syntax, but given its anarchistic nature, I'm not surprised. After all, some people now classify stand alone pronouns as determiners. – GoldenGremlin Sep 8 '15 at 23:54
  • @Silenus Yes, true! Re prepositions, grammars such as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language reclassified all the subordinating conjunctions apart from a tiny handful as prepositions that (sometimes) take clauses. Other writers such as Bas Aarts consider them a subset of the preposition category: "conjunctive prepositions" to be precise. :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 8 '15 at 23:58
  • @Silenus (and I myself regard determiners as pronouns that take nouns as complements! but don't tell anyone ...) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 9 '15 at 0:00
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A conditional protasis such as the preposition phrase if the initial connector is removed will traditionally have a comma after it if it comes before the main clause:

  • If she's not coming, I'm not coming.

But does not require one if it occurs afterwards:

  • I'm not coming if she's not coming.

In the Original Poster's example, the whole conditional forms part of a content clause which we understand as describing what is noted:

  • ... that [if the initial connector is removed, what is left normally becomes an independent clause].

The word that in the example above is a subordinator. It marks what follows as a finite subordinate clause. It definitely belongs with the clause which follows it, and not with the preceding material. It is not necessary for us to put a comma between that and a following content clause. This is true even if the following clause begins with a preposition phrase:

  • I think that after the concert I'll go to the beach.

We do not need a comma between that and the following clause. In short then, we do not need to put a comma after that in the Original Poster's example.

However, if the writer wants the give the if-phrase a parenthetical feel, as if it was in commas, then it would be fine to set the whole preposition phrase off in commas. This would be a bit like writing:

  • What most frequent observers note about these types of clauses is that - if the initial connector is removed - what is left normally becomes an independent clause.

I'm not sure that this is the effect that the Original Poster wants here. It makes it sound as if this is an exceptional situation. The writer is actually using if with the same meaning as when here:

  • What most frequent observers note about these types of clauses is that when the initial connector is removed, what is left normally becomes an independent clause.

So it's perfectly grammatical to mark of such preposition phrases with commas. But it will affect the way that the sentence reads. The Original Poster might be best off sticking with:

What most frequent observers note about these types of clauses is that if the initial connector is removed, what is left normally becomes an independent clause.

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