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In A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Bertrand Russell writes:

Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic.

Is the comma between the words 'that' and 'if' correct in the quote above? I tried looking this up, but could not find anything relevant.

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    Commas only exist to reflect pauses in speech. There is never a pause after "that" in your cited context, so the comma shouldn't be there either. It's unlikely anyone would pause after "things" either, so bin that one too. You might feasibly retain that second comma if you remove "then", but I wouldn't make that stylistic choice[,] myself. May 11, 2023 at 9:25
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    @FumbleFingers- I disagree. I find the sentence easier to read with the commas in place. May 11, 2023 at 10:58
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    Not "pauses", really -- more of an intonation contour that separates constituents of certain types. But if you hear it, write it. If it's easier to read with a comma, that means you "hear" the intonation in your mind's ear, which is good. But places where your instinct tells you they're misplaced is where they were put by someone following the wrong rule. May 12, 2023 at 1:30
  • You sometimes see commas before indirect speech like that; I wonder if it's because direct speech is commonly preceded by a comma, so people think they should do the same, or just to indicate a change of intonation for the indirect speech as mentioned. (It's easy to see why someone might want a comma to offset a subsidiary if clause, but it's still not great IMO.)
    – Stuart F
    May 16, 2023 at 20:16

1 Answer 1

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The following appears in a 2007 article in Constant-Content:

“If, then” statements require commas to separate the two clauses that result.

  • If I use correct punctuation, then I will include commas where necessary.

  • If Hillary Clinton wins the election in 2008, then she will become the first female president.

  • [If enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic.]

Even when the statement drops the word then, a comma must be used.

  • If Santa Clause was real, he would bring me a new bike.

  • If I had the money, I would go to Krakow for vacation.

Even the minimalists advocating the use of fewer commas would rarely omit one after a protasis (though there are examples of the terse, dramatic If he fights he dies on the internet, and I personally find this an acceptable choice).

However, the addition of a report tag before the protasis changes the cadence of the whole sentence. I'd say that this licenses the dropping of the comma after 'things', allowing

  • [1] Hegel thought that if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things then all its properties could be inferred by logic.

This is a possible reading (for those with good voice control). It also removes a problem some could see of a comma after the 'that' of a report tag. Omitting the 'then', however, virtually forces the comma after 'things' to aid parsing, so I'd not omit it here.

  • [2] ??Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things then all its properties could be inferred by logic.

looks very clumsy.

  • [3] Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, [then] all its properties could be inferred by logic.

both look more acceptable, and again represent one way of reading the sentence. As Kate says, this makes a lengthy sentence easier to parse (especially if 'then' is retained in the well-known if ...then construction) and to read aloud. Perhaps it looks more acceptable because the structure precisely mimics a parenthetical structure (though the protasis is vital).

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    She thought that if God existed he would help her. I can't see much scope for commas there, nor can I see any significant difference between the structure of mine and OP's example. But I guess if people want to add commas it's up to them. May 11, 2023 at 14:20
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    Each of the clauses in OP's example is about twice as long as yours. May 11, 2023 at 14:31
  • Well, yes. So in the end it comes down to catering to the reader's potentially limited "ultra-short-term memory" (can they remember the relevant syntactic structures for long enough to parse the text correctly?). I'm a bit surprised some like KateBunting would appreciate that "helping hand", though. Actually, noting my preceding sentence right here, I must admit that although I would normally include a comma before the final "though", I'm not aware that this meaningfully reflects a pause in my spoken version of that utterance. Sometimes it's just a "syntactic requirement". May 11, 2023 at 14:41
  • I notice you avoid 'grammatical requirement'. I've been happy to find 'endorsement' for no stop rather than the trad comma or colon before the opening inverted commas of quotes (including direct speech); I feel free to choose whichever I feel sounds most natural. And yes, commas do sometimes have a necessary policing role, but not as often as some would make out. May 11, 2023 at 15:36
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    I'd use two commas or zero. though retaining the 'second' comma alone wouldn't cause me to reach for a red pen. Actually, [4] 'Hegel thought that if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic.' is growing on me. At What is the status of 'natural' punctuation? appears 'Commas: Use commas to create a pause if your breath units are getting too long.' [If no loss of clarity ensues.] May 12, 2023 at 11:22

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