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In revising a 1953 manuscript in which the author (a non-native speaker, a professor, quite proficient in English yet with a few lingering idiosyncrasies) and the original editor (OUP, New York branch, still working under some British English conventions in house style) made often inscrutable choices in the use or non-use of commas, I'm authorized to make alterations in this area, but I'm first looking to develop some operational principles, a rationale for when to alter. We know commas can be tricky because they're sometimes optional. I'd prefer to error on the side of minimal intervention, making changes not when the comma or lack of one is a mere felicity or stylistic matter, but where their use genuinely facilitates ease of reading and comprehension.

I'm looking for signposts, guidance, a good reference as to when this is a matter of discretion and when the rules are hard.

Reviewing the 400-page MS, it's sometimes obvious when to intervene. Drop it into software like Quill Bot or Grammarly for a quick sense, and every page, if not every paragraph, has numerous comma recommendations.

How would others approach this? Please refer to any CMOS sections that focus on the discretionary aspect.

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  • 6
    Probably 75% of the time it's a matter of style, often dependent on whether the comma resolves a potential ambiguity. There aren't lots of good rules.
    – Barmar
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:25
  • P.S. "error on" should be "err on".
    – Barmar
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:26
  • 6
    If you're trying to be conservative, when you see a comma that might be optional, try removing it and notice whether it makes the sentence more confusing.
    – Barmar
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:27
  • 4
    And if you find that a sentence without a comma has a garden path parse, see if adding a comma makes it easier to read.
    – Barmar
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:28
  • 2
    CMOS chapter 6 is a good place to start, but it would take several answers to sum up all the different situations where discretion is warranted. For instance, serial commas (6.19), conjunctions linking independent clauses (6.22), compound predicates (6.23), dependent clauses after the main clause (6.25), and several other entries all extend to the writer some discretion on how to apply its rules. I can't write a more specific answer, but I'd start with those sections of CMOS and then create an internal style guide as I edit. Oct 13, 2023 at 18:50
  • 8
    Commas are audible. Read it out loud and, if you hear a comma, put it in. If not, take it out. Oct 13, 2023 at 18:50
  • 2
    @JohnLawler Like this? youtube.com/watch?v=TIf3IfHCoiE
    – Barmar
    Oct 13, 2023 at 19:42
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  • 2
    What is the status of natural punctuation? (which includes a section on 'non–syntax-policing' uses of the comma). But there are many other questions addressing comma usage here on ELU. // I assume you've researched broad-brush overviews such as that given by Indiana University East ['Commas (Eight Basic Uses)']. Oct 14, 2023 at 11:16
  • 3
    Important to trust your own native ear. Working with many non-native speakers who converse well, I see mistakes in every sentence. When pen is put to paper, the formality of writing reveals flaws. Oct 15, 2023 at 0:30
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    In my view, you achieve the closest thing to ideal punctuation when the marks direct and clarify the writer's intention without distracting the reader from the substance of the writing—effectively making these visible markers invisible yet fully meaningful. And the best way to accomplish that is by being as consistent as possible in your deployment of them. A punctuation style is like tinted lenses: readers quickly lose awareness of it as a visual influence on the text as long as the style doesn't keep changing—so if you decide to go with dark brown punctuation, stick with it.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 18, 2023 at 22:01

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