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Two colleagues have a disagreement on the use of commas!

One says the following sentence should be written:

"It's never been easier to view and buy products online, or order a catalogue, whilst on the move. You can even find your nearest store, using Google maps."

Another believes it should be:

"It's never been easier to view and buy products online, or order a catalogue whilst on the move. You can even find your nearest store using Google maps."

Can somebody please help to clarify?

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  • I haven't got anything against it myself, but it's worth observing that 'whilst' in that sentence is obsolete, rare or (conjunctive 'or') archaic. 'While' would be the contemporary word. As such, if the vocabulary chosen is rare and archaic, so also best would be the punctuation style. In any case, B. Hooper's answer is accurate.
    – JEL
    Nov 25, 2015 at 0:54

5 Answers 5

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Punctuation is a matter of style, so there is no right and wrong, just a matter of conformance with a style guide. If your two colleagues can't agree on a style guide, then they won't be unable to resolve their dispute. And even then, guides don't give hard and fast rules.

If they chose the Chicago Manual of Style, they'll find the first choice is an acceptable way to punctuate an aside, but that the second choice is frowned upon since it separates a disjunction of a pair of compound complements -- "to view and [to] buy" and "[to] order." The complicating factor is that the first of the pair is itself a conjunction of infinitives. The problem with the single comma is that it can mislead the reader into thinking that an independent clause will follow the "or."

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  • What do you mean there's no right or wrong? Are you saying that not using any punctuation at all is okay? Just a matter of style? What extravagant relativism!
    – Ricky
    Nov 24, 2015 at 17:17
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I'm inclined to the view that the two sentences you are comparing do not mean the same thing.

It's never been easier to view and buy products online, or order a catalogue, whilst on the move.

means that while on the move, it has never been easier to buy products or order a catalogue.

It's never been easier to view and buy products online, or order a catalogue whilst on the move.

means that it has never been easier to buy products online. And that it has never been easier to order a catalogue while on the move.

Try reading the sentences aloud and you will see what I am driving at.

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    Punctuation cannot disambiguate in the way that syntax/phrase placement can. If "whilst on the move" applies to all actions, and the writer/speaker wanted to make that very clear, the sentence should be "It's never been easier, whilst on the move, to view and buy products online or to order a catalogue". If "whilst on the move" applies only to the catalogue ordering, it should say "... or, whilst on the move, to order a catalogue."
    – TimR
    Nov 24, 2015 at 18:16
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Technically, you don't need a comma in either of the sentences as they are written. The "or" in sentence one basically separates the sentence into two equally weighted thoughts and no comma is needed for the pair. The second would need a comma only if "using Google maps" was moved to the beginning of the sentence since that would make it a dependent introductory phrase.

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This is not how rule books explain it, but for what it's worth:

It's never been easier to view and buy products online whilst on the move.

That's a complete thought. You look over it and you notice that you're missing something: an alternative activity. Instead of buying products, one could order a catalogue. You need to INSERT IT.

An insertion needs two commas: one at the beginning, and another one at the end.

The result looks like this:

It's never been easier to view and buy products online, or order a catalogue, whilst on the move.

No commas are necessary in your next sentence: there are no breaks in thought, no insertions, no pauses:

You can even find your nearest store using Google maps.

Et voila!

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To my mind, it is all a matter of intention. Subordinate constructions get commas, but it is not clear whether those ideas should be subordinate, or not.

If the catalog example is meant to be heard as an afterthought, or a thoughtful elaboration, injected into the sentence "It's never been easier to view and buy products online whilst on the move.", then it would be set off with two commas.

If it is not to be called out as a special case, but simply included as a peer, it needs no comma at all.

There is little motivation for the form with one comma. And it injects the problem raised by @BrianHopper. (One might see 'or' as a coordinating conjunction here, but that is not likely, as the thing joined are not really potential sentences.) So it is better avoided.

And again, if the clause "using Google maps" is meant to be heard as an interpolation, or a special case, it would be injected with a comma. Otherwise, it would not.

So either all of those commas should go, or all of them should stay, depending upon how 'thoughtful' or how 'forthright' the person speaking is meant to sound.

(The more tentative, old-fashioned speaker is at least consistent.)

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