Here's a sentence from no less than Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.

Why is there a comma after concubines? I see this construction fairly often, where the second part of a compound noun is set off in commas.

Also, shouldn't Gibbon have put a comma before the "from the..." as in "....and [,] from the productions which he left behind him,"?

Here's another example, from the first paragraph of the work, where I've put a note in brackets after each questioned use:

In the second century of the Christian Æra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, [Editor: comma use here?] and the most civilized portion of mankind.... The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, [Editor: comma use here?] and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. It is the design of this, [Editor: comma usage?] and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire.

  • Hello, Brad, and welcome to EL&U. You have proposed an edit with the same name on a second account. – Cascabel Feb 3 '19 at 15:23
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    Welcome to English Language & Usage, Brad Rogers Carson. I just have two observations to note. First, punctuation conventions in eighteenth-century English writing were very different from today's conventions—and not elucidated by widely accepted style guides; in particular, comma usage tended to be prolific and (to a modern reader's eyes) quite odd. I quote an example in this answer to a question about the punctuation of the second amendment. ... – Sven Yargs Feb 3 '19 at 18:41
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    ...Second, even today, punctuation rests on convention, not necessarily strict syntactical logic. If you follow a particular style guide, such as Oxford or Chicago or AP or MLA, you may find a fairly strict set of rules about what constitutes correct or incorrect punctuation, but those guides don't agree in all their particulars with one another. Under the circumstances, it hardly seems reasonable to argue that Gibbon's punctuation choices are wrong in any absolute sense—any more than it would be to assert that he spelled era incorrectly as Æra. – Sven Yargs Feb 3 '19 at 18:41
  • books.google.it.ao/books/about/… This historic book may have numerous typos and missing text. Purchasers can download a free scanned copy of the original book (without typos) from the publisher. Not indexed. Not illustrated. 1846. You have to take into account how manuscripts were published in 1788. There were often typos. That is an entire "subject" in publishing and these very old books. Ahistorical understanding of these issues does not help. – Lambie Feb 3 '19 at 18:43
  • Old books have to be treated differently than new books.There are multiple editions and it is very likely that even the very first printing one had issues. And judging these without keeping all that in mind is just silly. Printers sometimes introduced errors not in the manuscript, for example. – Lambie Feb 3 '19 at 18:46

Your thinking is mostly correct.

There are multiple things wrong with this sentence—and not just its punctuation.

The following is one way of fixing it (it includes two of your three suggestions)—and it seems like the way with the fewest number of edits:

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines [] and a library of 62,000 volumes attested [to] the variety of his inclinations, and[,] from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation."

The second part of the sentence mentions the former as well as the latter. The former references the twenty-two acknowledged concubines and the latter references a library of 62,000 volumes.

Since this is a list of only two items, a comma separating them is inappropriate. Also, using paired commas—one after concubines and one after volumes—would turn the second noun phrase into nonrestrictive information. However, that would be inappropriate since both nouns in the sentence are required for the essential meaning of the second part of the sentence. (If you removed the library of 62,000 volumes portion of the sentence, the former as well as the latter would become nonsensical.)

🠆 There should be no commas used in the first part of the sentence at all.

The problem with the missing preposition after attested should be clear.

🠆 Add to after attested.

The sentence contains two independent clauses. The first ends with inclinations. They need to be separated by a semicolon, a period, or a comma followed by a conjunction. They already are separated by a comma followed by a conjunction, so leaving them alone is the simplest.

🠆 Leave the comma and conjunction after inclination as they are.

The phrase from the productions which he left behind him is nonrestrictive information that isn't syntactically required for the sentence as it's currently formed. However, there is only a comma after the phrase.

🠆 Add a comma before from the productions which he left behind him so that the nonrestrictive information is between a pair of commas.

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  • The last piece of advice you give – to add a comma before from… – isn’t really necessary. From… is an initial adverbial which is long enough to warrant a following comma, regardless of whether it’s restrictive or non-restrictive, and initial adverbials like this never require a comma before them unless you want to stress that they are nonessential and parenthetical. Adding that comma is equivalent to putting the adverbial between dashes or in parentheses; not wrong, but also not required. (Another issue with the sentence is the notion of ‘designing’ concubines.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 8 '19 at 10:34

Having received an entire degree in English, I have heard so many conflicting ideas of where to put commas, I think it often comes down to personal preference.

In this case, I believe that’s what’s called an “oxford comma,” a comma coming before “and” in a list of items. In American English, Oxford commas are optional.

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  • This is not an Oxford comma, no. Two items do not constitute a ‘list’ in the context of Oxford commas. Without Oxford comma, it’s “A and B are…”, “A, B and C are…”; with it, it’s “A and B are…”, “A, B, and C are…”. It’s never “A, and B are…” anywhere, except if B is added as an afterthought, parenthetically; and in that case, a comma should also follow B and the verb should agree with A: “A, and B, is…”. (And Oxford commas are optional everywhere, not just in AmE.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 '19 at 16:40

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