I was shocked to discover that or rather is used with and without comma in a dictionary:


It is fear, or rather fears, that I want to speak about in this book.

But he'd had that last night - or rather, in the small hours of the morning.

And it's the same on Google.

Does this mean the comma is optional for or rather?

  • Those are not dictionary word definitions. They are simply example sentences, most likely from other sources entirely. I would not place much faith in the grammar of such third-party examples. Also, there is no comma in "or rather" (that would be or, rather). You're talking about punctuation around the phrase. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Apr 28 '19 at 7:05

Commas are used to clarify meaning. If the meaning is already clear, then they can be omitted.

In both examples there is punctuation before "or rather" (a comma in the first case, a dash in the second.

There is not need for a comma between "rather" and "fears" as this is just one word. There is no lack of clarity, and puctuating as

..., or rather, fears, ...

would be less clear.

So, yes, the comma is optional. It should be omitted if not needed.

  • I'm curious. Why would it be less clear? – alexchenco Apr 27 '19 at 8:01
  • 1
    because in the example "or rather fears" is a parenthetical phrase. If you put another comma before "fears", then it is less clear where the parenthetical phrase ends. A speaker would also speak "or rather fears" as a single intonation group for the same reason. – James K Apr 27 '19 at 11:21

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