Had there been food, love-making and fighting would have gone on apace, and the pack-formation would have been broken up.

Upon first reading this sentence from White Fang, my intuition was to interpret the initial comma as indicating the beginning of a list, (and thus I interpreted lovemaking and fighting as the 2nd and 3rd items respectively). However after reading "fighting" I was met with "would have gone on apace", and thus had to double back to the beginning and then correctly interpret the initial comma as indicating the separation between a subordinate and independent clause.

Thus, should I observe the latter rule with a higher priority than the former, hereon? Then in all future sentences I would read the sentence as if the latter rule was the case, and if I found it did not work within the sentence I would then restart observing the rule with the 2nd highest priority and repeating the process until I had correctly interpreted the sentence.

Are there lists available showing comma grammar rules or grammar rules in general along with their frequency of appearance/manifestation, and their being prioritised in an order reflecting highest frequency to lowest? Should I then train my intuition to reflect these prioritisations? Is there any literature that discusses the potential trade-offs in prioritising grammatical understanding over the minimisation of repeated readings? Did English grammar rules evolve with the latter in mind?

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    If English grammar rules were ever created at all, that's news to me. Your first priority is to make your meaning clear to your reader. If you make all rules serve that single purpose, your writing will be untouchable. – Yosef Baskin Jul 12 at 14:32
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    As per @YosefBaskin, but I would add that it's not unusual for me - a native English speaker - to experience the problem you're referring to and then have to re-read the sentence. This and other "failures" in the language are good places for deliberate ambiguity. If you're looking for a grammar that is always clear then the best candidate might be a programming language. – Aethelbald Jul 12 at 14:44
  • Commas, assuming they have been used correctly in a sentence etc, must be categorised according to how they must be interpreted as being used. Here (1) your first paragraph details exactly how I'd have treated this sentence. However, (2) I'd then have identified this as suboptimal (but certainly not 'ungrammatical') English, an example of a garden-path sentence. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 12 at 14:44
  • I edited your question to put the quote at the top. When I read "sentence below," I immediately looked for the text in the second paragraph, thinking it should be put into a block quote, but didn't find it there. I only later realized that below didn't mean "immediately below," but "at the very bottom of the post." (Ironically, this was an example of exactly the parsing error you're describing in the question.) Moving the sentence to the top of the question allows for the issue to be quickly described and understood. – Jason Bassford Jul 12 at 15:21
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    @YosefBaskin Spot on – Tuffy Jul 12 at 15:56

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done when encountering text like this, where its interpretation is ambiguous, and it can lead some people into making parsing errors, causing them to backtrack after realizing what they've already understood doesn't make sense.

Were I to edit this particular text in such as way as to explicitly avoid the potential parsing issue, I could do it in a couple of ways:

  • If there had been food, love-making and fighting would have gone on apace, and the pack-formation would have been broken up.

  • Love-making and fighting would have gone on apace had there been food, and the pack-formation would have been broken up.

The first version makes it clear that the initial part is a conditional rather than a list item, and the second version, while altering the meaning very subtly, moves the conditional to the end of the sentence, also avoiding the issue.

There can be a fine line between prose style and immediate comprehension. Often, one can interfere with the other in some way, and certain trade-offs will need to be made.

I can speculate it's possible this kind of confusion over this particular parsing wasn't as common in the time London wrote his book—or that it was, but he preferred how the version he settled on sounded more than he cared about any possible misinterpretation. Alternatively, perhaps he just wrote it that way without thinking about it, and it wasn't caught by his editor at the time.

Forming a kind of style list with common parsing rules will likely not help you for two reasons. First, you would probably not be able to read enough examples to come up with an objectively relevant corpus from which to draw useful general rules. Second, even if you did, you would still have a problem with those instances where the more common style was not applied.

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English grammar rules are not prioritized in the way you are talking about.

English grammar rules lay describe what grammar structures you should use for a given meaning- e.g "If you have a subordinate clause then it should be preceded by a comma". You seem to be thinking there are rules like "If there is a comma then that means what follows is a subordinate clause, unless such-and-such in which case it is a list separator". The rules don't work like that, and a comma can have many meanings.

There is no "prioritization" to determine which of its possible meanings a comma indicates. You have to determine it from context. You did that successfully by realizing that the "list separator" usage didn't make grammatic sense within the rest of the sentence, but the subordinate clause introduction usage did. That is how it is supposed to work.

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