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I have the following sentence:

If your school doesn't offer AP courses, we recommend that you take the most challenging courses you can⁠—whether they be honors, IB, or even dual enrollment courses.

Is placing an em dash or comma before "whether they be" considered correct?

I ask because I've seen this rule online: no comma is necessary before whether if the dependent clause precedes the independent one.

Yet in the example above the dependent clause comes after the independent one. Does that mean I should remove the em dash?

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  • While I'd prefer a comma here, other things being equal, as it best reflects the small pause I'd add in reading, you then have comma clutter, a clash between the offsetting of the parenthetical and the listing commas. The dash is suboptimal but perhaps the better choice. (I'd use two sentences.) May 18 at 18:30
  • An interrogative adjunct would normally be set off with punctuation.
    – BillJ
    May 19 at 7:09

2 Answers 2

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The "whether" clause is nonrestrictive and should thus be surrounded by paired punctuation. That typically involves dashes, commas, or parentheses:

If your school doesn't offer AP courses, we recommend that you take the most challenging courses you can⁠—whether they be honors, IB, or even dual enrollment courses.

If your school doesn't offer AP courses, we recommend that you take the most challenging courses you can⁠, whether they be honors, IB, or even dual enrollment courses.

If your school doesn't offer AP courses, we recommend that you take the most challenging courses you can⁠ (whether they be honors, IB, or even dual enrollment courses).

The second dash or comma is omitted because it would be adjacent to the terminal period. (Parentheses are never omitted.)

As Edwin Ashworth notes in a comment, the offsetting comma might be confused with the following serial commas. (I don't mind it, but others might.) Dashes are often considered the strongest of the three options—i.e., representing a relatively sharp break—while commas are often considered the weakest.

My standard caveat is that people have a wide variety of opinions about punctuation—and especially commas—so this is certainly not the only possible approach.

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Lose the em-dash, use a comma:

Short Term Energy Shortages: Hearings, United States Congress House. Committee on Science and Astronautics. Subcommittee on Energy · 1973:

There has got to be some focal point of this information whereby Congress then can relate to what legislative changes are needed, whether they be in antitrust laws, whether they be in area of deregulation, whether they be in the area ...

Panama Canal Treaties: United States Senate Debate 1977-78 United States Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Separation of Powers · 1978

What could be wrong with requiring just a little bit of check on these nine commissioners, whether they be Americans or whether they be Panamanians?

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  • But note that your examples avoid comma-clutter by repeating 'whether they be'. And again, no supporting reference. May 18 at 18:23

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