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I work in transcription, and I continue to come across a sentence structure that boggles me. In my search for an answer, I've found conflicting conclusions, so I'm hoping you all can help me.

Often, speakers will use sentences like "He did not understand that (,) if he'd complimented the elderly woman (,) she may have helped him."

In reading, I most commonly see only the second comma being used. However, I have seen support for omitting both commas as well as support for including both commas. Online, the top (and only) answer indicates both commas are necessary, but I'm unsure about the legitimacy of the answer and the qualifications of the advisor.

Is it correct to have one comma, both commas, or no commas?

Any and all help is appreciated.

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  • "...she might have helped him"! ("She may have" means that it's possible she did.) Sep 9, 2022 at 8:08

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If a condition clause ("if" clause) comes before the result clause (main clause) there's always a comma between them, so the second comma is non-negotiable. The first comma is more interesting.

We don't add commas after "that" when it introduces the clause that directly follows it. We only use a comma after "that" if there's some other phrase that interrupts between "that" and the clause it introduces:

He's said that, without giving too much away, he's got a surprise for us this weekend.

Here, "that" clearly introduces "he's got a surprise for us this weekend", but the phrase, "without giving too much away interrupts, so it gets commas to set it apart. The commas indicate that this interrupting phrase is parenthetical.

So, the presence of the first comma indicates whether "if he'd complimented the elderly woman" is part of what's being introduced, or just parenthetical.

With a comma, the meaning is something like:

He did not understand that the elderly woman may have helped him (you know, if he'd complimented her or whatever).

Without a comma, the meaning is something like:

He did not understand that the elderly woman may have helped him if he'd complimented her.

Which is to say, failing to compliment her resulted in her not helping him.

It's up to the translator at this point to determine the intent in the original and choose.

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