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I've searched for the answer on this site and other websites, and found conflicting advice and sample sentences that look wrong to me.

I'm posting this question hoping for clarification.

My understanding is that this construction can have a comma only if there are two complete sentences on both sides that follow the not only and but also bits.

The parts after not only and but also should be parallel.

But I see examples in online guides that appear wrong to me.

Wrong:

"He’s not only funny, but also he’s intelligent." (Grammarly.com)

Correct (to me):

"He's not only funny but also intelligent." (No comma)

"Not only is he funny, but also he's intelligent." (Comma)

On the same Grammarly page:

"Not only is Matthew going to Egypt for a month, but also Greece for a couple of weeks."

Why is a comma acceptable above? Why is not only not misplaced?

Correct (to me):

"Matthew is going not only to Egypt for a month but also to Greece for a couple of weeks." (No comma)

"Not only is Matthew going to Egypt for a month, but also he is going to Greece for a couple of weeks." (Comma)

Then there's the "Grammar Girl guide", which puts commas on every such sentence, example:

"He is not only a great swimmer, but also a great musician." (Grammar Girl)

Correct (to me):

"He is not only a great swimmer but also a great musician." (No comma)

"Not only is he a great swimmer, but also he is a great musician." (Comma)

Could someone please clarify the rules regarding this?

I posted what I feel is correct but I do not know where I learned the rules or whether I just made them up; and so I am not sure if I am correct here.

  • 3
    (1) I'd agree with you that the Grammarly examples should be avoided. For the reason you give about lack of true parallel structures. (2) However, when it comes to a rule about including or omitting a comma in / from a correctly parallel structure, I believe we're talking about preferred style rather than correctness / incorrectness. Modern tendency is to reduce comma usage, but there is also a move to use commas where the writer might like to pause for a breath. For emphasis, dramatic effect, oxygen....This view would license Grammar Girl's variant (whilst not forbidding the comma omission). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 11 '15 at 19:39
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    I agree with you and with Edwin Ashworth that parallel structures are needed. As for the commas, I'm not aware of any genuine rules; I tend to include or omit commas mainly on the basis of the length of the clauses. – Andreas Blass Dec 11 '15 at 21:38
  • I entirely agree with you with only exception that the sentences like "He is not only a great swimmer but also a great musician" should take a comma before "but also". – Dinesh Kumar Garg Dec 13 '15 at 3:28
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Fronting the sentence with 'not only A' Introduces the importance of the first element and emphasizes the unexpected element of B. When you remove 'not only' from the subject front position, then 'not only' is focusing on the combination of the two elements rather than highlighting them individually. Hence, why there's a comma when it's fronted vs. when it follows the subject.

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It's correct to put a comma before "but also" whenever what ensues contains its own subject and verb because "but" is a coordinating conjunction. Whenever any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, for, so, yet, nor) introduces to the sentence a coordinate clause—a type of main clause—grammar requires a comma.

As for the situations when what follows "but" is not a clause, it is a matter of style. That is why the advice you're finding varies so much. Personally, I always use a comma whenever applying a parallelism that uses "not only" and "but also."

Example:

  • John's not only disheveled, but also smells.

While what follows "but" isn't a main clause, it is part of a parallelism—a parallel construction that has its own special rules of grammar associated with it.

Traditionally, we have always used a comma to separate the two elements of a parallelism in a sentence, whether those two elements have been clauses or not. That, though, is changing. With the ongoing trend in grammar to eliminate commas, many style guides would no longer require a comma in the aforementioned example. When what follows the comma isn't a coordinate clause, it becomes up to you—or up to whoever wrote your given style guide, if any.

For me, where it gets dicey is when the "but" in "but also" is left implied. Here's an example where it's not implied:

  • Not only is he late, but also he forgot his homework.

-or-

  • He's not only late, but he also forgot his homework.

We often don't say it either of these ways, however. What we tend to do instead is leave the "but" out, so what we end up actually saying is:

  • He's not only late, he also forgot his homework.

How do we properly write that, though? I really, really want to put a semicolon instead of a comma because we would normally. Not doing so makes it look like a comma splice. The rub is that it's a parallel construction, which generally requires a comma and NOT a semicolon. We don't make parallel constructions with semicolons. So what to do?

  • Sometimes we do make parallel constructions with semicolons, however: "The man bought milk, eggs, and cheese; the woman bread, butter, and honey; and the robot nuts, bolts, and wires." I would lean toward using a semicolon on the last example. – Will Kunkel Jul 8 '16 at 20:28
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Since 'but' doesn't work alone as a coordinating conjunction (separating items in a list), it must be a subordinating conjunction, so the grammar is clear without the comma. (compare to use of 'if')

'also' is used adverbially, so it could be set off by commas, but it is clearly associated with the verb so commas could be considered clutter: Bob is going to Spain, but, also, he is going to Greece.

Note that 'only' has to be kept away from the noun phrase 'Bob', causing the inversion in: Not only is Bob going...

Bob is, not only, going to Spain... is also bad because it might mean that Bob is going along with someone else.

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For me, the rule to always remember and follow is that the clauses, phrases, and word or words after "not only" and "but also" must be parallel in form and structure.

Please visit this page: http://www.learnersdictionary.com/qa/not-only-but-also. I hope this helps.

I just have a comment on the following sentences of yours. Structurally, they are correct.

  • "Not only is he a great swimmer, but also he is a great musician."
  • "Not only is Matthew going to Egypt for a month, but also he is going to Greece for a couple of weeks."

However, they sound awkward. If I were to restate them, they would go as follows:

"Not only is he a great swimmer, but he is also a great musician."

"Not only is Matthew going to Egypt for a month, but he is also going to Greece for a couple of weeks."

I hope this helps.

  • -1: There is absolutely nothing wrong with the OP's sentence: "Not only is Matthew going to Egypt for a month, but also to Greece for a couple of weeks." It has parallel structure; the phrase "he is going" is simply elided, which is completely standard in English. Non-parallelism would be something like "Matthew is not only going to Egypt for a month, but also very handsome and intelligent." – Peter Shor May 29 '16 at 14:49
  • For the Greece phrase ("but also to Greece for a couple of weeks") to be parallel with the previous phrase, the first part of the sentence should be written as follows: "Matthew is going not only to Egypt for a month,..." There is no need to elide or omit words. The parallel structures are "to Egypt..." and "to Greece..." which follow 'not only' and 'but also' respectively. – Portcall Jun 11 '16 at 10:59
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When you create a compound sentence, a semi-colon is needed. Unfortunately, the world is full of places where a comma has mistakenly replaced a semi-colon...

Correct punctuation of your examples:

He's not only funny but also intelligent.

This is fine!

He's not only funny, but also intelligent.

This is also fine.

The choice is stylistic only. I prefer the one with a comma, because when I say this aloud I pause at the comma.

Not only is he funny; but also he's intelligent.

Not only is he funny; but also, he's intelligent.

Both are correct. The choice is stylistic only. I prefer the one without a comma, because when I say this aloud I do not pause at the comma.

With regard to parallelism, I agree with other comments that it is also a matter of style. Portcall's answer links to good advice to check for parallelism in formal writing, though!

  • How about Not only is he funny, but also he is intelligent? – user140086 May 29 '16 at 12:32
  • That is fine. I would write it this way, though, because I pause at the comma AND place extra emphasis on "he is intelligent" when speaking: Not only is he funny, but also, he is intelligent. Some would call that unnecessary clutter, though. – Randy B Read-only May 29 '16 at 12:43
  • I fail to understand the relevance of your first paragraph: it reads to me as if you consider that "a semi-colon is needed" and that a comma would be a mistake. But you then proceed to indicate that it is "fine" with or without a comma. Please clarify. – TrevorD May 29 '16 at 13:39
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Could someone please clarify the rules regarding this?

Only you can clarify the rules: by looking for answers (learning) as you obviously do. I agree with your consistency in applying rules to writing. Thank you for trying to be better because a missing comma or mistakenly inserted comma hurts everyone.

However, I think we need to ask a question before this: How many people in the world care enough about what comes out of their mouth to care about communicating intelligently? Few care, so most people cannot write [complete and grammatically correct] sentences. And so there is all the babble you read that you are questioning: worrying some advertising guy cares about anything but selling you something and has better grammar than you.

** Not only did I read ten books on grammar when I was thirty, but I also learned in public school. Also, I was an Admin Asst for ten years and saw that most business guys have public school grammar and believe they're always right so they won't learn.

As in my last paragraph, it isn't always about what most people will "tell" you is [universally and unequivocally] correct: Sometimes it's about what "reads" best (ie, "but I also" seems human). And some other times, it's about rewriting an entire sentence to avoid awkward constructions.

  • Can you delete all related with your personal opinions and answer the question? Your post doesn't read like an answer to the question. – user140086 Jul 8 '16 at 14:17

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