Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this 'punctuation book' I'm about to refer to offering completely conflicting information in its chapter about Comma usage?

On page 63 of 'Webster's New World: Punctuation', there's a section highlighting "When no comma is necessary" to separate terms connected by conjunctions. Here, it gives the following sentence as a poor example of punctuation, with the unnecessary insertion of the comma: "Maxwell did not please the Internal Revenues agent, or his accountant."

And yet, on the previous page, the author writes the following sentence: "Don't automatically place a comma in front of every conjunction, or joining word." Isn't this exactly the same sort of construction? The comma is working against the author's own advice!

I have studied syntax to the degree that I can tell you that sentence (1) has two two direct objects, 'agent' and' accountant', and it therefore wouldn't make sense to separate them with punctuation. Similarly, in sentence (2), we have two completers, 'conjunction' and 'word', of the preposition 'of'. Why is the comma present in that sentence?

Concluding with the wider issue here, why is it that I observe top journalists, authors, academics, and so forth constantly violating this comma-with-coordinate-conjunction rule? Even in a flippin syntax book I'm reading the author breaks predicates with commas, like so: "Speakers are unconscious of the rules they use all the time, and have no difficulty in producing or understanding sentences."--from 'English Syntax: An Introduction' by JB Kim

There seems to be no consistency!

If anybody can provide some clarity for me with an answer, I would be eternally appreciative!

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    In the first part, the "or" phrase is part of the sentence. In the second part, the "or" phrase is an aside, more or less explaining what defines a conjunction. As for the rest of your question/rant, punctuation is very much a matter of style and preference, with every institution, author, and publisher having a different preference or set of rules to which they must adhere. There are very few set rules, and authors of fiction and the like are welcome to break the rules, if they feel it enhances their writings. – VampDuc Nov 6 '15 at 21:01
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    So nonessential asides can have coordinating conjunctions attached to them? In sentence (2), is the 'or joining words' an appositive with a conjunction attached? Also, look at my edited example with the sentence from syntax book. Doesn't that sentence seem questionable to you? The words after the second comma are without a subject. – Sean Nov 6 '15 at 21:07
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    Yes, non-essential asides can have coordinating conjunctions. Yes, I'd consider "or joining words" as an appositive. And I think the subject you're referring to is "Speakers." If "...and have no difficulty..." did have a subject, that would make the comma a comma splice. – VampDuc Nov 6 '15 at 21:31
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    "Why is it that I observe top journalists, authors, academics, and so forth constantly violating this comma-with-coordinate-conjunction rule?" We got an answer for that, anyway. They do it because the rule is wrong, they never heard of it anyway, and if they did they'd just laugh at it. There is no grammatical rule for comma use. The only safe rule is to put a comma where you hear (or want your reader to hear) a comma intonation contour. This is aural, not grammatical. Say it out loud, and if you hear it, put a comma in. – John Lawler Nov 6 '15 at 21:44
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    @JohnLawler As often as you say it, I still think this is terrible advice. And who is "we", who have this answer? Punctuation is certainly not "grammatical"; it's a matter of style, but not for the aural. It's for the written word. There's no sense in "saying it out loud" unless you're in the habit of reading everything out loud. Different people will read text differently, and throwing commas in where you would happen to pause likely won't help the next person. – deadrat Nov 6 '15 at 22:59

I think the difference is that, in the second sentence, the phrase or joining word is used in apposition. Where the first sentence includes a compound direct object (as you correctly identified), the second sentence has a single object (conjunction) in the prepositional phrase, and that object is further elaborated with the appositive or joining word.

Thus, it's grammatically correct, technically. Admittedly, however, this is confusing usage. If I were the author, I would have used parentheses for the appositive to avoid confusion:

Don't automatically place a comma in front of every conjunction (joining word).

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"Don't automatically place a comma in front of every conjunction, or joining word."

This looks like irony to me. The author is humorously breaking the rule in the very sentence warning against it. Is this author given to humour in the rest of the piece?

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    I don't think there's any irony intended. His book is littered with similar comma insertions. – Sean Nov 6 '15 at 23:39

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