In the February 11, 2019 edition of The New Yorker, there is a weird profile of the writer Dan Mallory. Can someone help me explain the grammar of the commas I have bolded below? Why is there a comma after "disdain"? Why the comma before the words "and worked"? Presumably The New Yorker must have its reasons:

As if impatient for advancement, Mallory often used his boss’s office late at night, and worked on her computer. On a few occasions in 2007, after Mallory had announced that he would soon be leaving the company to take up doctoral studies at Oxford, people found plastic cups, filled with urine, in and near Linda Marrow’s office. These registered as messages of disdain, or as territorial marking. Mallory was suspected of responsibility but was not challenged. No similar cups were found after he quit. (Mallory, through a spokesperson, said, “I was not responsible for this.”)

  • Too many "news" in the title. You might want to edit your post and fix it. – Mari-Lou A Feb 4 at 17:55
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    Another oddity is the decision to use commas to break out "filled with urine" in the second sentence. I suspect that most editors would have omitted the commas around that phrase, since there is little likelihood that readers would have misunderstood the sense of the phrase within the sentence in the absence of the commas. But presumably the New Yorker editors felt that "plastic cups filled with urine in and near Linda Marrow's office" might be taken to imply that the actual filling of the cups with urine occurred in and near her office (as opposed to, say, in a remote bathroom). Whatever. – Sven Yargs Feb 4 at 19:12
  • @Sven Yargs Yes! None of these are commas I would regularly use. That second sentence is right in line with the explanation in this article: "In Defense of 'Nutty' Commas.". It's worth a read for seeing how they justify this usage: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret …” – TaliesinMerlin Feb 4 at 21:46
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    @TaliesinMerlin: That's an interesting blog post. As a copy editor I feel vaguely traitorous for saying this, but I almost never enjoy reading Mary Norris's commentaries. She and every other New Yorker copy editor of the past 70 years has toiled under the malign influence of Eleanor Gould Packard and her eccentric views about the purpose of punctuation. As much as I enjoy The New Yorker, I think that it provides an object lesson in why we should not view copy editing as a matter of mercilessly reshaping text to satisfy a preconceived system of formal correctness. Procrustes I am not. – Sven Yargs Feb 4 at 22:14

The comma before the coordinating conjunction or

These registered as messages of disdain, or as territorial marking.

is a prosodic comma, not a grammatical one, that is, one dictated by a pattern of speech imitated in print rather than rules of grammar, which this usage superficially violates. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions only when they introduce an independent clause or optionally — the so-called Oxford comma — the last element in a series.

I finally just sat, at which time he realized that he had not even offered me a seat. “Excuse me, monsieur, I didn’t even offer you a seat or something to drink or eat. Would you like some coffee or tea or perhaps something stronger?” He hardly paused for a breath. — Max Ciampoli, Linda Ciampoli, Churchill's Secret Agent: A Novel Based on a True Story, 2010.

But what if the man offering refreshment did take a breath? Then it would look something like this:

“What do you say to a cup of tea, or perhaps something stronger after your run, eh? and then a wash, and tea when you come down,” Markham acknowledged that at the moment the “something stronger” certainly seemed to meet the situation. — Montague Summers, The Grimoire and Other Supernatural Stories, 1936, 288.

Perhaps the person speaking to Markham only thought of offering him an alcoholic beverage after having said “cup of tea,” or wished to elevate its topicality by a pause. Given Markham’s reaction, it’s probably the latter. The comma in and then a wash, and tea when you come down is also prosodic, not grammatical.

Though joined by a coordinating conjunction, messages of disdain and — since the author is talking about human behavior — territorial marking are not of equal topicality, so the comma introduces a slight pause to accent the unexpectedness of the second element. Other punctuation choices:

These registered as messages of disdain — or as territorial marking.
These registered as messages of disdain (or as territorial marking).

would draw more attention to the notion of Mallory marking his territory like a tomcat than the author wishes.

Though technically incorrect, one finds such commas fairly often with compound predicates:

Once the tent was set up I took a hike with Sophie along a trail bordering the lake, and then decided to take a shortcut across country in the direction of the tent. — David Laursen, Going to (And With) the Dogs, 2008.

Here, the comma accents the difference in time between taking a hike and then deciding on another route back.

Similar concerns dictate comma placement in this sentence:

He took a bite of his bread and drank some of his water, and then decided he would sleep for a few minutes. — Adam Pfeffer, To Change the World and Other Stories, 2008, 54.

Both writers imitate a pause one would introduce when telling the story aloud. Repeating the subject pronoun merely to make the comma grammatical seems overly fastidious. I didn’t realize it until now, but I did the same prosodic comma trick above in the sentence:

Perhaps the person speaking to Markham only thought of offering him an alcoholic beverage after having said “cup of tea,” or wished to elevate its topicality by a pause.

I would hesitate calling the subject of the verb wished an elided he to justify the comma, as it is a claim one could equally make for

He took a bite of his bread and [he] drank some of his water.

where no careful writer would insert a comma.

Your first example, however,

As if impatient for advancement, Mallory often used his boss’s office late at night, and worked on her computer.

I would consider a comma error because using the boss’s office and working on her computer are simultaneous actions of equal topicality. There would be no pause in speech while narrating these actions, so a prosodic comma would be unwarranted.

I would also say working at her computer, since working on her computer might suggest he was repairing it.

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    I'm fine with the general concept of a prosodic comma, and even with avoiding a grammatical explanation of a prosodic comma entirely, but your description of the first sentence as an error seems peculiar. How can one say that a prosodic comma is an error there? The reason for pausing speech would be determined by the speaker or writer, not the reader. Perhaps the speaker paused for emphasis while narrating those actions because they believed that the actions were not simultaneous (using the office was independent from working on her computer) or paused for the sake of another qualifier. – TaliesinMerlin Feb 4 at 21:42
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    I agree with most of your answer, but disagree that the comma in the first example is an error. Using the boss's office is somewhat of an invasion of privacy, but using the boss's computer is a much more extreme invasion of privacy that is a greater signifier of Mallory holding his boss in disdain. I view the comma as prosodic, a milder form of "and even", as in "Mallory often used his boss’s office late at night, and even worked on her computer." – Old Pro Feb 4 at 22:20
  • I disagree about preferring "working at her computer", which could mean "in the vicinity of", like "at her desk". Given that Mallory is already placed inside her office, I think "working on her computer" less ambiguously conveys "using her computer". I imagine the writer wanted to avoid using "used" twice in the same sentence, so to satisfy your concern I would rewrite it as "Mallory often worked in his boss’s office late at night, and even used her computer." – Old Pro Feb 4 at 22:24
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    Prosodic commas are discretionary; their usage boils down to a matter of opinion. All I’m saying is that if I were an editor at the New Yorker, I’d let the second sentence go but ask for clarification on the first. and even might justify a comma, but the author didn’t write that. — Of course I couldn't work for that magazine because their use of commas is often way too 19th century for my taste. – KarlG Feb 4 at 23:29
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    You are assuming that occupying the office and working on/at the computer are simultaneous actions. The article says no such thing. Mallory may sometimes have occupied the office without using the computer, and (if the computer was a laptop) may at other times have used the computer without occupying the office. Without the comma, the actions are described as being simultaneous. With the comma, they are not necessarily simultaneous - though of course they might be. – alephzero Feb 4 at 23:47

Commas are so complicated that, depending on the count, there are seven, twelve, or even more rules to take into account. The New Yorker is renowned for being glib with their commas. So yes, they probably have their reasons.

The first instance connects two independent clauses. But wait, you may think, "worked on her computer" has no subject. It has an elided subject, or a subject via ellipsis, here marked in parenthesis:

(1) Mallory often used his boss's office late at night, (2) and (he) worked on her computer.

The conflicting rule is that two items in a list (two actions or two things) don't need a comma. However, the comma signals that (2) is being understood as an independent clause and a subsequent or consequent action to using the boss's office, rather than as a mere second predicate.

The second instance functions as an aside or explanation, to clarify that "as territorial marking" is not a mere second item in a list but an explanation or extension of the first option ("messages of disdain"). This comma usage has been mentioned here before. It likely signals that the territorial marking is an integral part of the disdain, rather than a second theory independent of being interpreted as disdainful.

  • Thanks for the insightful response. So a follow-up: how does one discern a compound verb from an elided subject? They would seem to be the same thing! – Brad Carson Feb 4 at 17:43
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    They are two descriptions of the same thing. In a double predicate, the subject of both predicates would be "Mallory." In an elided subject on a second independent clause, the elided subject would be a pronoun ("he") that corresponds to the first subject. The comma makes the second perception more likely; without the comma, either description is possible. A prescriptivist might prefer one description and make recommendations accordingly. – TaliesinMerlin Feb 4 at 21:25
  • +1 for the link to the New Yorker's own explanation. – Drew Feb 5 at 2:26

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