In my English dialect, one can construct compound verb phrases with "and" like: "I cut and boiled the carrots."

This can also be used with prepositional verbs: "He worked for, and stole from, his uncle".

However, I'm unclear as to how one should punctuate this.

Some possibilities:

  • He worked for—and stole from—his uncle.
  • He worked for and stole from his uncle.
  • He worked for, and stole from, his uncle
  • He worked for (and stole from) his uncle.



You say:

In my English dialect, one can construct compound verb phrases with "and" like: "I cut and boiled the carrots."

This is general English. I don't think there's anything regional about it.

This other sentence:

"He worked for, and stole from, his uncle".

is clearly different, not because of the prepositions, but because of the contrast between "working for somebody" (idea of benefit) and "stealing from somebody" (idea of damage). This is, I think, what accounts for your need to separate the second verb phrase (I'd use commas or dashes, not parentheses). This punctuation makes the second phrase parenthetical, to the point that it may sound like an afterthought or rephrasing (actually, rather than work, what he did was steal).

Notice that no such punctuation will be necessary if both actions are more compatible and harmonious:

  • He grew up with and worked for his uncle.
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Each of your examples work—whether or not the verb is prepositional—and conveys a different tone (or emphasis) to the reader. You might consider retitling your question to something like, "What's the difference between commas, hyphens, a parentheses with verb phrases?"

Please read Rob H's answer to post in the following link. He does a good job describing the different moods communicated by commas, hyphens, and parentheses. https://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1409/dashes-vs-commas-vs-parentheses

Your second example—the one with no punctuation except the final period—sounds strange because it conveys a matter-of-factness about "working for" and "stealing from" someone at the same time.

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  • What's the difference between commas, hyphens, a parentheses with verb phrases? The thing that really interested me was how I should turn the phrase in my head into text and whether I needed to add any special punctuation to deal with the prepositions. I felt like one might need some punctuation aid parsing of the verb phrase. The answer seems to be that you don't need any and can use punctuation for expressing nuance of meaning. I'm concerned that something might be lost if I remove the word prepositional from the question. – Att Righ Nov 26 '17 at 22:58
  • The em dashes were actually added by an editor! I've seen punctuations for free-standing morphemes like "We handle in- and outbound mail", so thought that one might add these to to somehow indicate a "missing argument". From the answers, I'm guessing you only use something like this for morphemes or some other part of a word? – Att Righ Nov 26 '17 at 23:09
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    Hyphens are used to connect words together so that they are understood essentially as a unit: state-of-the-art, mother-in-law, forty-two, etc. The example you gave with "in- and outbound mail" is also a proper use of a hyphen. But you shouldn't use them to delineate phrases. – pablopaul Nov 26 '17 at 23:40

Your examples that require special punctuation are RNR (right node raising) constructions, which mark a missing constituent with an intonation break or pause. In "He worked for, and stole from, his uncle", the objects of the propositions are missing from their original positions. I see a comma used for this, ordinarily.

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  • Interesting. I'm quite pleased to find the linguistic term for this sort of construction. In the first example, I had modelled this as (Subject: I) (Verb phrase: Cut and Boiled) (object: The carrots), whilst right node raising seems to be different. – Att Righ Nov 26 '17 at 22:45
  • When I've thought about this before I've likened RNR (which I didn't know the name for) to c macros. You use a shorthand to produce a new sentence and then parse that sentence, rather than parsing the sentence directly. So I cut and boiled the carrots -> I cut the carrots and I boiled the carrots -> ((I cut (the carrots)) and (I boiled (the carrots)). You seem familiar with this sort of formalism so I'd be interested to know if there is a name for this different kind of parsing. – Att Righ Nov 26 '17 at 22:48
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    @AttRigh, The relation between "I cut the carrots, and I boiled the carrots" (a conjunction of two sentences) and "I cut and boiled the carrots" (a conjunction of two verbs) is called "conjunction reduction" in transformational grammar. – Greg Lee Nov 26 '17 at 23:05
  • Thanks. Transformational grammar was the word I was looking for! – Att Righ Nov 26 '17 at 23:16

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