In a sentence beginning, "The head officer[,] or his designee[,] shall..." are the bracketed commas appropriate? If so, could you explain the formal grammar rule that would require them? I'm a legal proofreader; if I suggest commas, it must be ascribed to a formal grammar rule, rather than personal choice. (And as a bonus question, is the comma I placed before "rather" necessary?)

  • Not familiar enough with the names of rules so I'll leave the answer to others, but the rule that there is that would justify those commas has something to do with the phrase "his designee" being subordinate to "the head officer" (I mean grammatically, not rank or like that). If it said "The head officer or the duty officer..." I think there would be no need for commas. But the "his," referring back to the thing previously stated, is what makes me want those commas. Sure there's a rule! bust out the ol' Strunk and White! – Jack Roy Dec 14 '15 at 3:43

The discussion, both in the previous answers and the commentary, raises some interesting points about punctuation in general and the use of commas in this particular case. The OP has asked about a "formal grammar rule," and one respondent has declared himself a syntactical purist while talking about a "hard and fast rule." There's been mention of "speaking" and "saying."

At the risk of becoming hackneyed, let me repeat the instruction that

punctuation is a matter of style for written text, and as such you should be guided by your manual of style.

First, this means that punctuation rules aren't a matter of grammar in say, the way of the English grammar rule that the passive voice of a verb is made with an auxiliary form of "to be" and the past participle of the verb in question. Punctuation exists to guide readers into making the correct syntactic choice in parsing sentences. The reason is that English syntax is a recursive, tree-like creature, and ambiguity arises when we force it into linear text. (Note that I wrote "readers": there is no oral punctuation except in a Victor Borge comedy routine, which I have referenced before.)

Manuals of style issue many seeming diktats but temper them with the reservation that the writer has the ultimate choice. As the Chicago Manual of Style notes in its thirteenth edition in the introduction to its nearly 20 different rules for the use of the comma,

There are a few rules governing ... [the comma's] use that have become almost obligatory. Aside from these, the use of the comma is mainly a matter of good judgment.

But there are many competing manuals of style, and they don't always agree. Not only that, but as the CMS notes there are changing styles of style. An older version, so-called close punctuation follows the grammar more closely than more contemporary, open punctuation.

Let's (finally) examine the aptness of the commas in

The head officer[,] or his designee[,] shall ...

I will be guided by CMS, which says that generally commas are not to separate two compound subjects. And there's another reason to omit the commas: as has been noted in this discussion, non-restrictive appositives (i.e., renamings) are set off by commas and these can be disguised by the word or:

The bubonic plague, or the "Black Death", ....

Using the commas thus may make it difficult for readers to discern at first glance whether there are one or two people authorized to do what they shall do. But the comma cannot take the weight of determining that the or is exclusive, that the designee operates only in the absence of the chief officer. Perhaps that's what the company's by-laws say, but that's not how a power of attorney operates. And a comma isn't up to the task of telling how things work.

But there's another (and naturally, contradictory) consideration from CMS -- asides or parenthetical elements are generally set off by commas:

The head officer, as long as he is mentally competent, ....

Is the alternative of the designee an aside and thus worthy of accompanying commas? It's impossible to tell without more context. If this fragment is from a discussion of the powers of the head officer, maybe so. If it's a reminder about the duties of designees, perhaps not.

If manuals of style cannot settle issues of punctuation with finality, then why use them? I can think of two reasons. First, if you write for someone else, be it thesis advisor or employing organization, a manual of style may be thrust upon you. Secondly, even if you're free to write as you please, a manual of style will help keep your punctuation consistent. Your readers may well adapt to an idiosyncratic style, but not if they can't tell what it is from paragraph to paragraph.

Finally, should there be a comma before "rather" in the OP. Well, CMS says to set off complementary or contrasting items, here "formal" on the one hand and "personal" on the other. But, all together now,

It's a matter of style.

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  • You may have missed the Marx Brothers sketch (Groucho dictating to Zeppo) with (or rather without: nobody knew how to spell it) the semicolon. // Personally, I'd probably omit the commas in OP's example because this sort of jargon doesn't lend itself to creative cadency. And, let's face it, it's best to get it over with as quickly as possible. But I'd want commas (at least) with "The Lord High Executioner, or the members of his anti-peppermint squad, shall ...". I've posted references before recommending sensible adaptability rather than mechanistic consistency in comma usage. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 14 '15 at 7:49
  • @EdwinAshworth I didn't remember the bit from Animal Crackers (youtube.com/watch?v=ZuVe3leQQgE). Groucho (as Captain Spaulding) dictates a letter to Zeppo (as secretary Horatio Jamison) indicating the punctuation. The joke is that Jamison is evidently spelling out all the words dictated because he asks Spaulding how to spell "semicolon." Spaulding doesn't know either, so he says "All right. Make it a comma." I'd also forgotten how abusive Groucho makes Spaulding. – deadrat Dec 14 '15 at 8:14
  • @EdwinAshworth CMS takes pains multiple times to endorse "sensible adaptability" over "mechanistic consistency," but people love having rules almost as much as they love breaking them. As the Firesign Theater says, "Give them a light, and they'll follow it anywhere." – deadrat Dec 14 '15 at 8:16

I wouldn't use commas there (in your first example). "His designee" is essential information. I wouldn't keep the comma before "rather", either.

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  • I can't provide a formal grammar rule (perhaps there isn't one), however I would keep the commas before and after "or his designee", because they imply that the second subject (the designee) is only a possibility if the head officer is not available, so they are mutually exclusive in a way that the word "or" doesn't necessarily imply. As an example, "The dog or the cat ripped up the cushion." doesn't imply that only if the dog is absent, then the cat must do it - the cat might have done it even if the dog were present. – Cargill Dec 14 '15 at 3:35
  • @Cargill: I like that example. Puts the issue in easy to manage images. But I think in the case of the OP (also the name of an unpublished story by Conan Doyle "The pernicious case of the OP"), it is the officer's prerogative to either go or send a designee, i.e. the cat can do it even if the dog is present, so in your suggestion no commas would be preferred. – Jack Roy Dec 14 '15 at 3:57

The sentence has multiple subjects and a single verb. There is no reason why the bracketed commas should be included; in fact, it is erroneous to add them. The format of the sentence is no different than if it was:

The head officer and his designee shall...

The fact that the conjunction used is an "or" does not change the punctuation rule.

If it is used as an appositive, meaning the phrase within the commas is equivalent to the phrase directly before it, the commas would be necessary. e.g:

Thomas, the head officer, shall...


The head officer, or "chief," shall...

In the first example, it is clarifying a specific person's role as head officer. In the second, it is ascribing a particular title to the position of head officer. In both, the phrase within the parentheses is a clarification of the phrase before it and is referring to the same noun. Both need the pair of parentheses

However, in your context, no parentheses should be added.

NOTE: Sorry if I offend you with my blatant misuse of your example out of context. Pay attention only to the syntactical arrangement of my examples.

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  • The sentence has multiple subjects and a single verb. The sentence has alternative (mutually exclusive) subjects, and I still contend that the commas preserve and make clear that (intended) sense. – Cargill Dec 14 '15 at 4:20
  • I do understand your line of thinking, and in everyday speaking I would say it that way. Grammatically speaking, I don't know of any rule that indicates that a subject of lesser importance needs to be framed by commas. If you source one, then I will certainly recant my entire argument. – PlasmaStarfish Dec 14 '15 at 4:24
  • It's not a subject of greater or lesser importance, it is by definition a completely alternative subject (in other words the designee will not be acting if the head officer is available - that is the point of a delegate). I also don't necessarily see a difference between "everyday speaking" and "grammatically speaking" - at least not in this example. The bracketing commas make it clearer that the designee is an alternative only in the absence of the other, the head officer. – Cargill Dec 14 '15 at 4:36
  • Is there any reason you changed or to and in the OP's example? – user140086 Dec 14 '15 at 4:41
  • I'll clarify: I meant "orally" to distinguish from "written." I would never write it with a comma, although I may use pauses when saying the phrase. Further, I understand your intended use of commas for the designee being only an alternative, I just don't agree with it. In your opinion, is the bracketed comma necessary in this context: "The head officer[,] or, in his absence, his designee, shall..." – PlasmaStarfish Dec 14 '15 at 4:42

You need formal style where things are not to be the subject of opinions, feelings, considerations.

The reason you may or may not use comma is that it is a matter of style. Formal style is the one that says that you do not have this freedom.

To clarify:

In your case not using comma may suggest whoever is present at the time. With comma it could mean preceding: if the head officer is there then he is to do something, only if he is incapacitated then his designee can do it. For this reason I would add instead, for example. Another confusion is how many people can be a designee. Without comma it is suggesting one, with comma anyone that is a designee.

All this should be specified, not left to the interpretation of comma.

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