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I was reading a book and stumbled on this sentence:

It was closed, but the salesman said he would wait, if we hurried.

I'm confused about the use of the comma preceding if we hurried.

Why not write

It was closed, but the salesman said he would wait if we hurried

Are these two sentences materially different? Do they convey different things? How do I decide whether or not to use a comma before a subordinate conjunction?

  • It's a matter of personal choice, based on how the author wishes the reading to be paced. – Hot Licks Feb 17 at 2:03
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This comma appears to be a mistake. Generally, there is no reason to insert a comma with this sentence structure. The content of the salesman's message is "I will wait if you hurry." (Of course, if we reverse the clauses, a comma is called for: "If you hurry, I will wait.")

It is possible, however, that the author inserted a comma deliberately in order to convey a brief pause that would make "if we hurried" stand out. That would slightly alter the sentence to suggest that the salesman was willing to wait, but only if we hurried. The difference would be one of emphasis, and it is rather subtle. In editing prose, I would delete the comma and see if the author objected. In editing poetry, I would talk with the author before deleting. (Sometimes the level of the author's writing skills is a determining factor.)

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  • Please add references to your answer. – CJ Dennis Feb 9 at 4:01
  • Sorry, CJ Dennis -- My main source is my own expertise (60+ years) with language. However, you may find the Purdue OWL website helpful. In most cases, I suspect the author would intend "if we hurried" to be "essential information" directly connected to "he would wait," so NO comma. Occasionally, however, an expert writer may deliberately insert a comma to create a brief pause in the thought flow for a subtle shift in emphasis. Here is a link to the section on comma usage in OWL: owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/punctuation/commas/… – E Witt Feb 10 at 18:10
  • Everyone starts off answering from their own experience. However, other users can't tell if your experience is typical or not. By providing references you're saying "This isn't just the opinion of one random person from the internet, but at least one respected author says this". – CJ Dennis Feb 10 at 20:32
  • Thank you, CJ Dennis. I will keep that in mind. If readers do not know me, they do not know my experience and skill, so they would certainly perceive my comments as coming from a "random person." – E Witt Feb 12 at 17:23

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