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The movie portrays the rise of X and the conflict of Y.

A reader could interpret the sentence as the rise of two things, but I want them to unambigiously interpret the sentence as the portrayal of a rise and a conflict. Do I add a comma after X then to get:

The movie portrays the rise of X, and the conflict of Y.

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    The conflict of Y with what? With X? Conflict requires 2 parties. – John Feltz Jan 10 '17 at 21:05
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    I see nothing wrong with the way the first sentence is interpreted. – Hank Jan 10 '17 at 21:12
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    @Daniel I think by saying "the rise of John Adams and a conflict of succession" it may be read that way, but not the way you have it. But, if you absolutely needed to, you could say "The movie portrays not only the rise of John Adams, but also the conflict of succession." – Hank Jan 10 '17 at 21:23
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    @LaughingVergil Punctuation is an aid to guide the reader to reach the correct parse of text. Pauses are gaps in spoken language. Where you would pause in reading aloud may differ from others' renditions, and in any case, commas are written cues, not aural ones. While there is some overlap in comma usage in text and pauses when that text is read aloud, pauses are a poor guide for comma placement. – deadrat Jan 10 '17 at 21:24
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    Alas, punctuation can take you only so far. Placing a comma before and might possibly emphasize your intended meaning, but it might also confuse your reader into expecting two conjoined clauses rather than a compound direct object. – deadrat Jan 10 '17 at 21:27
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If you are worried about the ambiguity (and yes, it is possible to read it as rise (X and conflict(Y)), instead of as rise(X) and conflict(Y)), then just do so. Reword it.

Relying on a comma to narrow the possible interpretations is good only when either (a) you are sure that your reader will notice the comma and interpret things correctly or (b) it is not a serious problem if the reader misreads it (no nuclear meltdown etc.), and you do not really care if that happens.

And in your example no use of a comma will do the job, in any case. Just reword your text.

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