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They dated for two years. Then(,) along the way, their love started to fade.

I wonder if along the way here is parenthetical or not. Is it the same as this structure?

Then, without even noticing it, their love started to fade.

Or maybe it's up to me whether I want it to be parenthetical? And therefore add a comma after Then?

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I would say that "along the way" is parenthetical, or non-essential.

Then their love started to fade.

would be a valid sentence, with the same basic meaning, although without an added nuance or detail.

The other example in the question:

Then, without even noticing it, their love started to fade.

uses the same structure, although the meaning is not exactly the same. (It is also a case of elision, as it is short for):

Then, without their even noticing it, their love started to fade.

In both sentences the parenthetical clause should be set off by commas, one before and one after the clause.

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along the way is an idiomatic phrase. See below, for others.

I see no reason to get tied up in the words parenthetical or non-essential as this question is a matter of style, and, not a grammar question.

The phrase is often used.

But I would call it an adverbial phrase since it answers the question: When did their love start to fade**?

Then, their love started to fade along the way.

It could have faded at the end, at the beginning or at some other time.

Pre-positioning the phrase is merely style and does not change how it functions in the sentence as an adverbial phrase.

No, along the way is like but not exactly the same as: without their even noticing it.

Their love started to fade without their even noticing it.

That is a prepositional phrase.

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Questions about punctuation depend on what style guide you adopt. There is no universal agreement on punctuating English.

My personal guide is whether there would be a pause if the sentence were spoken. I would say

Then brief pause along the way brief pause their love started to fade

so I would write

Then, along the way, their love started to fade.

The purpose of punctuation is to provide to a reader clues to meaning that are given to a listener by stress and interruptions. Punctuation does not exist in the grammar of English as a spoken language.

EDIT: English as spoken (except by Viktor Borge) has no punctuation, but has many other extra-verbal cues to meaning that do not exist in written English. There is a significant statistical correlation between quite brief interruptions to the speaker's habitual pace of speech and the use of commas specified as appropriate by many style guides. I did not intend to imply that questions such as the recommended distinctions among the usage of comma, semicolon, colon, dash, and period can also be determined by mimicking quite brief interruptions in a speaker's habitual pace of speech. That is a useful guide to the presence or absence of a comma, but it does not guarantee adherence to all the requirements of any specific edition of any specific style guide.

  • I would strongly disagree with the idea that punctuation is at all closely related to where a speaker would pause. Punctuation is part of written English, and has only rough correspondence with pauses in spoken English. One exception: When a writer of dialog wants to indicate broken speech, such as an injured or out of breath person might say, pauses may be shown with dashes or ellipsis marks. But that is a very special case. For example, the difference between a comma and a semi-colon is significant in written English, but is not normally detectable by sound in spoken English. – David Siegel Sep 18 at 19:20
  • @David Siegel I shall edit my comment because you have interpreted it to mean that all punctuation corresponds to pauses of different length. My point was that usage of commas, the topic of this question, is determined by style guides, which are not uniform, but is correlated with brief pauses in normal spoken English – Jeff Morrow Sep 18 at 20:56
  • parenthetical and non-essential are not the same thing. – Lambie Sep 18 at 21:27
  • @Jeff Morrow I agree that commas correlate better with spoken pauses than many other forms of punctuation (although I do hear quote marks pronounced as 'quote' and 'endquote'). There are certainly some differences of opnion about the use of punctuation, as there is about word usage. I understand you were not claiming that all punctuation merely records speech pauses. I still think that basing decisions on whether to use a comma on the placement of pauses in spoken English is getting things backwards, or sideways. Punctuation is its own thing, part of written English. ... – David Siegel Sep 18 at 21:51
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    @Lambie I quite agree with you, but I cannot find where I conflated the two or even used them. – Jeff Morrow Sep 18 at 21:53

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