Here's my sentence:

I haven't played much Risk, but if we do, you can imagine what would happen.

Is the above correct, or is one of the two sentences below correct?

I haven't played much Risk, but, if we do, you can imagine what would happen.

I haven't played much Risk but, if we do, you can imagine what would happen.

Thanks for the help!

  • In that case, would it be the second one?
    – Guest
    Jan 4 '17 at 3:07
  • I would phrase it as a rhetorical question: I haven't played much Risk, but can you imagine what would happen if we did? < or answering the question: > I haven't played much Risk, but you only imagine what would happen if we did play.
    – 3kstc
    Jan 4 '17 at 3:11

Commas are written ways to (attempt to) record the intonation contour of a sentence; there are many varieties of such contours, with different pragmatic and semantic effects. The comma is a rather primitive way of doing it -- one binary on/off mark to represent all continuous variations in tone, volume, and rhythm. The basic comma rule is: if you hear it, you write it. If you don't hear it, you don't write it.

But what are you sposta listen for? Basically, it's a sine wave. From the normal indicative mid tone to the high tone, then down to low and back to mid again, very fast, usually no more than two syllables. The comma is placed where the intonation happens. There is no pause in the sound stream, but it's often called a "pause" because it functions to separate constituents of the utterance.

The prototype intonation curve is the rhythm and melody of a list, as in counting:

  • ... fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five, ...

In the presenting sentence

  • I haven't played much Risk, but if we do, you can imagine what would happen.

the first clause is a complete sentence and ends with full stop intonation. It should end with a semicolon instead of a comma in print; comma intonation is wrong here; it's a classic comma splice.

  • I haven't played much Risk; but if we do, you can imagine what would happen.

And now why do we need a but? Simply putting these two clauses together without a conjunction tells the story better; but indicates surprise, but there is no surprise in this conclusion. And, with no but, the issue of over-commatizing the clause is averted.

  • I haven't played much Risk; if we do, you can imagine what would happen.

After contrastive do, there's another issue. Some proform is needed beside do, since the subject has changed from I in the first clause to we in the next, so the VP deletion is not quite complete. Better would be something like

  • I haven't played much Risk; if we do play it, you can imagine what would happen.

Finally, will (contracted, naturally, to what'll) is better than would here; there's no need to invoke irrealis conditions repeatedly in a hypothetical clause -- it's already imaginary and can't get any more so.

  • I haven't played much Risk; if we do play it, you can imagine what'll happen.
  • "it's a classic comma splice" -- Can you explain why it's a comma splice when there is a conjunction "but" after the comma? FWIW, I've seen many such examples in writing where two independent clauses are separated by a parenthetical dependent clause set off by commas. Dec 30 '19 at 23:27
  • The conditions you mention are grammatical, not phonological. As I said, the first clause ends with full-stop intonation, not comma intonation. That's why the semicolon is required - it's a full stop, phonologically and syntactically. That's what "comma splice" means -- substituting a comma for a full stop. Dec 31 '19 at 17:10
  • 1
    @HeWhoMustBeNamed 'I haven't played much Risk. If we do have a game, you can imagine what will happen.' shows statements that are not mismatched. Aug 17 '20 at 14:06

According to this site, only the second one is correct because of rules 3b and 4a together (connector, "but", and dependent clause, respectively).

I would also choose number two based on personal preference.

However, I think an argument could be made for the first one, too, in that it's just less pauses for a reader to make.

Meanwhile, I would definitely not use the third one.

As an aside, I would have said,

I haven't played much Risk, but, if I were to (play a lot of Risk), you could imagine what would happen.

because I would want to use subjunctive in this case.

What do you think?

  • 1
    Even less than 100 years ago commas on each side of that 'but' would have been almost compulsory. Now at least either is entirely optional, which indicates both are. Apr 18 '17 at 17:51
  • Hmmmm, @RobbieGoodwin, I half agree with your statement. I think the second comma depends on how much emphasis we the speaker would want to place on "but," but I think the comma before "but" is 99% compulsory. I'm having a difficult time reading the sentence without the pause that would be indicated by a comma. And you had been referring to the alternative sentence I had given, yes? Apr 19 '17 at 10:19
  • Thanks, Teacher… I wasn't singling out your sentence; I largely agree but it goes a long way from the original. However if you look back at contemporary editions of, say, Dickens or Rider Haggard, HG Wells or even my own grand-father, let alone people like Lovecraft or Bulwer-Lytton, they seem to think commas are the be-all and end-all, particularly when they can squeeze in another '…, but, …' like yours or another '…, and, …' That was and remains a matter of choice and to me '…, but, …' always seems old-fashioned, if not archaic… Apr 19 '17 at 21:43
  • Heh, @RobbieGoodwin, I see. In that case, then I'm a little lost :O :D. Do you mean that you think that even the OP's sentences don't need any commas at all since if "either is entirely optional, [then] both are"? I guess I just don't think that either is "entirely optional"? Meanwhile, I understand what you mean about over-comma-ing, so I would be totally OK with just two (:O) commas :D. Apr 20 '17 at 7:33
  • I think any real rules are too subtle for sentences like that and in every-day English 'I haven't played much Risk but if we do, … ' as at least as likely as the others… which is not to say that any of them is wrong. Apr 20 '17 at 10:40

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