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One common use of em dashes is to offset parenthetical phrases. But if a comma outside the parenthetical phrase immediately follows the parenthetical, what do you do with the comma?

I realize that that explanation is a little long-winded and confusing, so here's an example of a sentence that I'm unsure about (should there be a comma after the closing dash?):

I am a man ― a strong, burly man ― but I cannot endorse your claim.

Without a parenthetical, it is straightforward; there is a comma:

I am a man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

With parentheses, it is also straightforward; there is a comma:

I am a man (a strong, burly man), but I cannot endorse your claim

In the first example, what do you do with the comma after "man" that appears in the second example? Does you put it in a different place or cut it out entirely? Should it be:

I am a man ― a strong, burly man ― but I cannot endorse your claim. (No comma, as written above)

I am a man, ― a strong, burly man ― but I cannot endorse your claim. (comma before the opening dash)

I am a man ― a strong, burly man, ― but I cannot endorse your claim. (comma before the closing dash)

I am a man ― a strong, burly man ―, but I cannot endorse your claim. (comma after the closing dash)

  • I'd first get rid of the comma after "burly". – Hot Licks Jun 21 at 2:29
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    But after that, a comma represents a pause, as does a dash. You don't need two pauses. – Hot Licks Jun 21 at 2:31
  • It's not clear what you mean. Both of your example sentences look fine—and neither has both dashes and a comma after man. Nor do you use a sentence with parentheses. Can you add an example of the type of sentence you're not clear about? – Jason Bassford Jun 21 at 17:20
  • @JasonBassford I edited it. Is it clearer now? What I mean is that if I were to write the first example, would I need a comma where the closing dash is? – mprogrammer Jun 21 at 17:29
  • @Maxwell I think I get where you're coming from—but in your second example you say, "without a parenthetical, it is straightforward; there is a comma." However, there isn't a comma. Either your description contains a typo, or you had meant to put a comma before but that didn't make its way there. – Jason Bassford Jun 21 at 19:11
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In short, I would either leave out the comma before but or, if that bothers you, simply use different punctuation—such as parentheses.


Let's start from the simpler sentence and then add the extra information:

I am a man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

So far, so good.

Now, we want to add a strong, burly man as parenthetical information:

I am a man, a strong, burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

While this is syntactically sound, the proliferation of commas makes it look a little odd. So, in order to deal with all of the commas, it can be rephrased in a few different ways:

I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.
I am a man (a strong, burly man), but I cannot endorse your claim.
I am a man—a strong, burly man—but I cannot endorse your claim.


The problem posed in the question is whether or not there needs to be a comma placed before but—something which would typically (although not always) be the case when there are two independent clauses.

Let's take the example with the parentheses:

I am a man (a strong, burly man), but I cannot endorse your claim.
→ I am a man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

Here, we remove all parenthetical information including its punctuation, and end up back at the original sentence.


Now, let's look at the version that uses parenthetical commas:

I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

This version also seems fine in long form. Yet, if we were to actually remove the optional information and its punctuation, we would end up with this:

I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.
→ I am a man but I cannot endorse your claim.

Note that there is no comma—because it was removed. But I suspect nobody would think the long version is incorrect because of this.

When the extra information is taken out, we simply don't remove both commas. Depending on how you look at it, we either keep one of them or we remove both—and then add one back in again:

I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.
I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.
I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

→ I am a man, but I cannot endorse your claim.


In fact, you could make the claim that the second comma in the full sentence is playing a dual role. It's serving not only to terminate the parenthetical information but also to introduce the second independent clause.

This follows the same rule as when we end a sentence with an initialism:

✘ I live in the U.S.A..
✔ I live in the U.S.A.

Rather than repeat the period after A, we only use a single period. It serves a role in both the initialism and in the termination of the sentence.

The use of the comma has the same kind of dual role:

✘ I am a man, a strong and burly man,, but I cannot endorse your claim.
✔ I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

We do not use two commas in row, but only a single comma.


With that in mind, let's look at the version of the sentence that uses dashes:

I am a man—a strong, burly man—but I cannot endorse your claim.

I would argue that the second dash is, as with the single period after the initialism and the single comma after the parenthetical commas, serving a dual role.

It's not only acting to terminate the parenthetical information, but it's also standing in for the comma that would normally go before the conjunction.

Therefore:

I live in the U.S.A [..]
→ ✔ I live in the U.S.A.

I am a man, a strong and burly man [,,] but I cannot endorse your claim.
→ ✔ I am a man, a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

I am a man—a strong, burly man [—,] but I cannot endorse your claim.
→ ✔ I am a man—a strong, burly man—but I cannot endorse your claim.

However, if you don't like how that looks, then simply use parentheses for situations like this.


A final alternative is to not make the extra information parenthetical at all:

I am a man—a strong and burly man, but I cannot endorse your claim.

Here, I've again replaced the comma between strong and burly with and (to avoid the appearance of too many commas). But the entire phrase a strong and burly man is no longer parenthetical; instead, it's actually additional.

This changes the meaning of the sentence very slightly (it's no longer optional information that can simply be removed), but that may be acceptable.

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