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I work as an editor for a technical firm, and I'm struggling with figuring out if this sentence and others like it need a comma:

"Very limited grading is necessary to achieve the proposed grades because the site is essentially level and the proposed finished floor elevations are within 1 to 2 feet of the existing surface and surrounding finished grades."

I want to use a comma after 'level' because it's a longer sentence, and that does divide it into two complete sentences/clauses. However, are the clauses truly independent if both of them ('the site is essentially level' and 'the proposed elevations are') relate back to 'very limited grading is necessary because'? In other words, is independence solely a syntax question, or can it also involve meaning?

Sidenote: As an editor here, I'm generally not at liberty to rewrite unless something is technically wrong.

  • You need a comma after grades, and then none. The point is not "(in)dependence", but whether there is an intonation dip after grades, corresponding to (because), to mark the full explication of the assertion of the main clause that occupies the rest of the sentence. – John Lawler Aug 23 '18 at 20:06
  • No, that's wrong. A comma after "grades" is not required. "Because" is a subordinating conjunction. When it introduces a subordinate clause immediately after its sentence's main clause, it does not call for a comma to precede it like a coordinating conjunction does. – Billy Aug 23 '18 at 20:22
  • Sorry. As I forgot to mention, commas in English (unlike German, for instance) are not governed by grammar rules, but by phonological rules -- commas, unlike apostrophes, are audible, and therefore native speakers hear them, regardless of the grammar, when they are pronounced. – John Lawler Aug 23 '18 at 21:20
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    @JohnLawler Thanks for clarifying this, that commas are not governed by grammar rules. This is a question I've wondered because many times I've gotten into disagreements about commas where the authority for comma use was a style guide, not a grammar. However I'm sure many English teachers disagree with this, because they keep on holding on to rules such as distinguishing independent and dependent clauses, and that breaking such rules makes a sentence wrong. However as far as I can see they're just violations of particular style guides. Is that a fair summary? – Zebrafish Aug 24 '18 at 9:11
  • Yup. Unfortunately. School teachers tend to teach what they've been taught. Nobody ever told them about English phonology or syntax, and they learned by rote. – John Lawler Aug 24 '18 at 14:00
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Very limited grading is necessary to achieve the proposed grades because the site is essentially level and the proposed finished floor elevations are within 1 to 2 feet of the existing surface and surrounding finished grades.

In the above sentence, you would not use a comma after "level" because what follows "and" is the second item in a list of two causes being introduced by "because." We do not ever use a comma to separate list items when only two items are being listed and they are joined by "and." You're right about what follows "and" being in and of itself an independent clause, but it being an independent clause does not have bearing when it as a whole is being used as a noun, e.g., an item in a list.

If you feel that the length of the listed "because" items makes the sentence lumbering and confusing, try bringing the reader back to a point of reference by inserting another "because" beforehand (i.e., "...and because the proposed finished floor elevations..."). Unlike putting a comma there, a "because" there wouldn't be ungrammatical, but it would provide the clarity you're hoping for with a comma.

  • Thanks, that totally makes sense! The original sentence was actually even wordier, so it got lost on me that it's a list (but if you were to add a third reason why limited grading is necessary, what you're saying is obviously true). – Chelsey Aug 23 '18 at 20:31

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