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I was reading Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and I disagree with the comma placement in the following example:

If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after:

He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

To me, it makes more sense to place the comma after "and", not before it. That is, to write:

He saw us coming and, unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

In the above modification, the main sentence is "He saw us coming and greeted us with a smile", which is perfectly valid in structure; the parenthetical is "unaware that we had learned of his treachery".

I know that a lot of people have disagreed with Strunk & White's writing and claim that it's overrated (and frankly, I sort of agree with those people), so I'd like to know whether this example would also fall into the category of "things Strunk and White got wrong".


Is placing a comma after a conjunction in a parenthetical expression, such as in the example above, grammatically correct?

  • I follow your usage, not White's; but this is a stylistic matter, not a 'grammatical' one. I'm afraid I have to regard this question as 'based on opinion'--if not indeed opinionatedness! – StoneyB Sep 11 '16 at 1:06
  • Okay, that's reassuring, thank you! I thought maybe there were some rules I wasn't aware of that would make this a strictly "do it this way or its wrong" type of question, not opinion-based. Oh well :) – AleksandrH Sep 11 '16 at 1:10
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It should be obvious even to Strunk and White that any uncertainty about the position of the first comma will be resolved by dumping everything between the two…

Although a few of us might still use it, the third comma in "He saw us coming, and, unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile" is largely anachronistic and in any case, serves only to confuse the issue.

  • Uh… what? Did someone not like that, please? – Robbie Goodwin Sep 30 '16 at 21:26
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Background

First, I don't find the statement "If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after" in my 1979 edition of Strunk and White (Macmillan, 1979), but I do see it in the on-line version (May 1995).

Second, in the 1979 edition under the rule "Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas", the authors state:

"This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic."

So, I'm not sure it's correct to attribute the statement "If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after" to Strunk and White; after all, they were long gone by 1995. Also, Strunk and White acknowledge explictly in the 1979 edition that the rule is difficult to apply, which means to me that at times some judgment may be required.

Your Question

In your question, you state:

I disagree with the comma placement in the following example: "He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile."

To me, it makes more sense to place the comma after "and", not before it. That is, to write: "He saw us coming and, unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile."

I wouldn't go so far as to say your usage is wrong, because I don't think it is -- I understand the logic and sense of it -- but I prefer Strunk and White's placement. To me, the sentence sounds better when I read it out loud, at least the way I read it out loud. How it sounds is what matters. I'm not sure the following is grammatically correct, but I sometimes use two commas:

He saw us coming, and, unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

For me, this sometimes lines up well with the pauses in the sentence, and it is not inconsistent, or at least not entirely inconsistent, with the 1979 edition of Strunk and White. In any event, we now have all three possibilities out on the table: comma before the "and", comma after the "and", comma before and after the "and".

  • I know I don't have much experience, but I disagree with your comma placement. It seems to imply the main sentence is "He saw us coming, and greeted us with a smile", the parenthetical being "unaware that we had learned of his treachery" in what should have been an independent clause, but "greeted us with a smile" is dependent, so I think the comma before "and" is incorrect. – AleksandrH Sep 11 '16 at 12:10
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    @AleksandrH Believe me, I'm still learning, too. Of the two options you presented, I prefer Strunk and White's because to me it sounds better when I read it out loud, at least the way I read it out loud. How it sounds is what matters. I also confess that your alternative looks a little strange to me, probably because I don't often see the placement of the comma after the and, not before. I look forward to hearing what other users have to say. +1 on your question. – Richard Kayser Sep 11 '16 at 12:32
  • I see. So I guess the question may be -- as @StoneyB pointed out -- opinionated after all if there aren't any "strict" rules for this. Thanks anyway! – AleksandrH Sep 11 '16 at 13:32
  • It seems that my reading aloud differs from yours. To me, the example sounds more natural with a comma-sized pause after the "and". Pauses both before and after "and" sound OK to me too, but I agree with @AleksandrH that surrounding "and" with commas messes up the grammar. – Andreas Blass Sep 26 '16 at 1:14

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