This is from the Oxford Learner's Dictionary.


​based on, or holding, the belief that everyone is equal and should have the same rights and opportunities

I wonder why it is necessary to put a comma after 'holding'.

  • 3
    Note that dictionary entries are not sentences. They are not necessarily strictly grammatical in the usual sense. There are certain conventions that are specific to dictionary entries which differ slightly from normal usage. Apr 12, 2022 at 13:56

3 Answers 3


I don't think it is required, but it just makes the sentence easier to understand. Keep in mind that the 2 commas work together to offset the "or holding" phrase; it would be a mistake to only have one or the other.

It emphasizes that "based on" and "holding" are two parallel phrases that both point to the noun "belief." It still works without the commas, but it's less clear.

  • 8
    +1 for the point about such commas coming in pairs. Apr 12, 2022 at 7:30
  • 2
    I'll go out on a limb and suggest that this is a form of an appositive which uses verb phrases instead of the usual noun phrases. The referenced article doesn't give an example of this, but says "Apposition is a grammatical construction in which two elements, normally noun phrases..." Dictionaries, in my experience, do this often to distinguish different shades of usage.
    – Wastrel
    Apr 12, 2022 at 15:46
  • 1
    @Wastrel I disagree -- apposition does not use a conjunction, whereas the quote uses "or". It is saying that "based on" and "holding" are two possible relations, not that they are the same thing (as in apposition). For example, an egalitarian policy is one based on belief in equality, whereas an egalitarian person is one holding belief in equality. A policy does not hold a belief.
    – nanoman
    Apr 14, 2022 at 7:35
  • Thank you @nanoman I said I was going out on a limb :-)
    – Wastrel
    Apr 14, 2022 at 17:40

It would also be correct to write the sentence without any commas: “Based on or holding the belief ....” The reason the authors didn’t write it that was is probably that the sentence becomes much harder to parse without the commas. Which words in that sentence would the “or” refer to? We have to read far into the sentence to rule out the possibility that it will say something like, “Based on or holding the belief that everyone is equal implies the conclusion that ...,” where the clause parallel to “based on [the conclusion]” would be, “holding [that] the belief that everyone is equal implies [the conclusion].”

The purpose of the commas is to remove this ambiguity. If there’s a comma before the phrase “or holding,” however, there needs to also be one afterward. The function of the comma here is to set off “or holding” as parenthetical phrase, parallel to “based on.” It’s pretty similar to writing, “Based on (or holding) the belief that ....”

  • I didn't read your answer close enough initially. I think the definition of "parenthetical expression" is the more important part here.
    – Auspex
    Apr 13, 2022 at 11:00
  • @Auspex You might consider it parallel but not parenthetical. I’m not going to say you’re wrong.
    – Davislor
    Apr 13, 2022 at 11:02

This is in a dictionary definition - already pointed out that is a different normal usage than sentence grammar. In sentences, a comma often indicates a pause, or slight pause, that would/should/or could indicate a separation in the flow of a sentence. Commas are part of the rules and structure of grammar, which helps to define the written and spoken parts of language.

As to the pause, it separates portions of the flow such as phrases or clauses within the flow of the piece as a whole. There are fairly exacting rules for commas' use and placement, but these may vary by type of writing, convention, or even by personal style or preference.

As the basis of deciding whether a comma has been used correctly (after considering the above) try reading the sentence out loud using the established cues and context, then see if the pause or slight pause a comma should indicate sounds correct. Consider it is the writer's ear that established a comma's placement, in the written language, so it may be different in a novel, or a non-fiction piece, or a newspaper/journalistic story. Other types of writing may have vastly different rulesets: code, databases, telegrams (txt msgs R th mdrn equiv) and communiqués for instance.

Now we're back to where and why the sentence was written: as a definition in a dictionary. There the styles and preferences are very likely dictated and fairly rigidly used for the sake of clarity and axactness.

  • Thank you very much.
    – user153498
    Apr 13, 2022 at 11:18
  • While it's true some grammar or language is different in specific, technical contexts, that has nothing to do with this question. The comma use in the example is exactly the same as you'd use it in everyday writing.
    – MichaelS
    Apr 14, 2022 at 1:09

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