Tag Archives: Punctuation

The Oxford Comma, or the Limits of Expectation

Why talk about the Oxford comma? Surely everything has already been saidsung, or drawn. But why even have a blog if you can’t use it to share your great love of the Oxford comma? More importantly, its use comes up in all my classes; if I say ‘comma’ to a room of graduate students, someone will immediately ask whether it’s right or wrong to put a comma after the penultimate item in a list. I can explain both sides of the issue, but I cannot, in the end, answer the ‘right or wrong’ part of the question. Which leads me to another reason to talk about it: the very fact that there’s no simple answer to the question is instructive for the way we think about issues of style in our academic writing. Before delving into this topic, let’s look at what the Oxford comma actually is.

The first thing to note is that it is properly called a ‘serial comma’, the comma that appears before the conjunction in a list.

Peace, love, and happiness

Do you put a comma after ‘love’ or don’t you? That’s what my students want to know. Actually, that question is pretty easy—I do, always. The harder question—and the one they care about—is whether you should put a comma there. That’s the question that can’t be answered on the grounds of correctness. Both are correct, unless you are writing for a particular journal or press with a stated preference. Since most of my students are primarily concerned with writing their theses, they often have to make this decision themselves. And so they want a definitive answer. After I give a full accounting of the subtle pleasures and perils of the serial comma, someone is sure to say, while stifling a yawn, ‘so should we use it or not?’. Again, either way is fine, but here is a summary of my non-answer.

1. Despite the name and the song, the Oxford comma isn’t more formal. Students often tell me that they think it’s inessential but probably a good idea for a formal piece of writing. In truth, however, the serial comma is neither formal nor particularly stuffy. It’s not even more British: its presence in the Oxford style guide notwithstanding, it’s much more common in the US than in the UK. The only way in which it’s more formal is that it isn’t generally used in newspapers where narrow columns put space at a premium.

2. All the evidence about ambiguity can cut both ways, but in ordinary academic writing—in which internally complex list items are routine—the serial comma will help more often than it hinders.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture and finance.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture, and finance.

In this case, I think that using the serial comma is the easiest way to show what goes with what. I also recommend using semicolons when list items get unruly, and those are always used serially. Overall, avoiding ambiguity is our responsibility as writers. If commas can’t help us, then we need to reword; that is, there are many instances in which the problem is not the presence or absence of the serial comma, but rather the awkwardness of the list itself.

During diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

During diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

Measurements of medication levels are often essential during diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies.

While the second version avoids the obvious potential for misreading found in the first, the third may be better overall. I’ve written it with the serial comma, but it would, of course, be fine without.

3. Even if neither option is wrong, it’s still a good idea to make a decision. That is, just because both options are correct doesn’t make flipping back and forth desirable. Consistency is a useful principle when making style decisions. Doing the same things the same way every time is a kindness to your readers—since they will be saved the bother of wondering about stylistic inconsistencies–and a kindness to yourself—since you’ll be saved the bother of wondering what’s right each time. Some people will use the serial comma only when ambiguity might result from not using it, but I think that practice can potentially confuse the reader.

It took me a long time to get over my belief that the serial comma was inherently better. I believed this for years, and that was before I went to work for Oxford University Press, where it is house style. My editorial eyes are deeply attuned to it, and its absence trips me up every single time. But that just shows the limits of our own expectations. The serial comma is only better in a world where it is expected to appear. The only surefire solution is a world in which everyone does everything the same way, which is implausible and slightly creepy. The best we can do is choose our way and stick to it consistently, so our readers—consciously or unconsciously—become accustomed to our punctuation habits. Again, this is why I don’t like the practice of using a serial comma only when it’s obviously beneficial; inconsistency undermines our reader’s ability to becoming habituated to our writing style.

While the Oxford comma may seem more like a punchline than a punctuation mark at this point, I think that there is something important in this conversation. Writing requires us to make choices far more often than it demands simple rule following. And those choices should be made based on our best understanding of style conventions and reader expectations. The serial comma shows us the limits of expectation, but it also confirms the importance of making informed and consistent decisions about academic writing style.

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A Question of Parallelism

The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked if I could reprint a version of the letter here on the blog. The letter writer’s problem was simple, but extremely common: the almost-parallel sentence. The fact that the necessary changes are small doesn’t mean that they are insignificant.

Dear Rachael:

Could you please tell me if the punctuation in the following sentence is correct?

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador, and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here is a reworked version of my reply:

The problem with the punctuation in this sentence is inconsistency. These list items could be separated by either semicolons or commas, but the pattern should be followed consistently. Here are three options:

ONE: The same pattern, used consistently

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have learned the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

The simplest solution: use the same verb in all four instances and replace the final comma with a semicolon. The benefit of this approach is the emphasis that comes via the repetition of ‘I have learned’; that simple repetition can help to draw the reader’s attention to the four different experiences. The downside is the repetition and the limits imposed by using a single verb to express many different things.

TWO: A similar pattern, with four different verbs

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have experienced the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have demonstrated patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

In this case, the four different sentences are given different verbs. This version avoids repetition and gives the writer the opportunity to express more nuance.

THREE: A different pattern, with one verb followed by a list

I have learned many things from my work in the field: humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here, the list is placed after a single verb. This approach works well when repetition is undesirable and when that single verb applies equally well in all cases.

Overall, the writer must consider meaning, preference, and context to decide on the best way to establish parallelism. Once we identify faulty parallelism, our decision about how to fix it must be based on a renewed understanding of what we are trying to say. And once that meaning is clearer to us, we can make further refinements based on our own stylistic preferences and any particular demands of the context in which we are writing.

Finally, the original question asked only about punctuation, so I focused my revision on the punctuation and the structuring of the list. Parallelism, of course, also relies on parallel expression. In this example, parallelism could be further improved by a consistent use (or omission) of ‘while’ and by a more consistent pattern across the four sentences.

Full Stop

As I was proofreading something recently, it occurred to me that discussions of punctuation and grammar contain relatively little about the period. If you go looking for information on using periods, you will mostly find technical advice about formatting. Such editorial advice is crucial, but not necessarily of primary interest to the writer. The obvious reason that writers don’t worry much about periods is that their use is pretty straightforward: we use a period after a complete sentence. The period has none of the apparent complexity of the semicolon, the colon, the dash (more on the dash here), or the comma (more on the comma here, here, here, and here). But that relative simplicity doesn’t mean that the decision to use a period isn’t consequential. A period makes evident key authorial decisions: whether to say a lot or a little before stopping; whether to be assertive or interrogative when raising questions; or whether to insert a full stop or just the rolling stop achieved by other types of punctuation. I certainly don’t want to problematize the one piece of punctuation that everyone feels good about, but the ways that we stop in our writing are worth some consideration.

Short vs. long sentences. Any time we use a period, we are deciding whether we want a short or long sentence. If we are generous with our periods, we will be writing clipped sentences; if we are stingy, on the other hand, we will end up with sprawling sentences. Neither is better. The previous sentence, for instance, is short because I want to emphasize it. And its brevity is enhanced by the fact that it follows a longer set of sentences with a semicolon framing their double-barrelled structure. It generally works well to use short sentences for emphasis and longer ones for depth. If we go too far in either direction, the reader will begin to suffer. Too many long sentences coming one after another—even if they are individually well structured—can be fatiguing for the reader. Too many short sentences will disorient the reader since not everything can warrant special emphasis. Those short sentences will inevitably contain unimportant things; the reader’s confidence in you can be undermined if you appear to be emphasizing the insignificant. Creating a healthy mix of short and long sentences can be the best thing for your paragraphs.

Direct vs. indirect questions. What is the impact of asking a question as compared with stating that a question exists? When raising questions in our work, we have to decide whether to use a direct question—i.e., one that ends with a question mark—or an indirect question, i.e., one that ends with a period. When we use too many direct questions, our readers may start to see us as having more questions than actual strategies for answering those questions. An indirect question gives us the ability to articulate a question, which is obviously essential to academic writing, while also indicating our plans for addressing the question.

Full stop vs. rolling stop. As a hopeless over-user of colons and semicolons in my own writing, I have a particular interest in this question. During editing, I often find long strings of sentences, all of which are connected by semicolons. An over-reliance on the rolling stop is a bit like an over-reliance on transition words: it tries to impose flow rather than establishing it. Genuine flow will involve the use of some colons and semicolons; there’s nothing wrong with nudging your reader towards the next sentence. The semicolon says that the next sentence is intimately connected to this one; the colon says that the next sentence completes what is being said in this one. Those relationships are emphasized by the punctuation choice, but the punctuation alone won’t create that relationship. The choice between a full and a rolling stop should be consciously based on an understanding of the nature of the connection between sentences.

In sum, if you understand what is requisite for a complete sentence, your use of periods will be perfectly correct. But thinking about how and why we end sentences can still be a useful avenue for improving the flow in your writing.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

Commas and Relative Clauses

Our task for today is to understand how we punctuate relative clauses. In the simplest terms, a relative clause is a clause that begins with a relative pronoun (which,  that, who, whom, whose). Let’s begin by looking at this example of a sentence with a relative clause:

CNCP patients, whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed, start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

This sentence—taken directly from student writing—is not incorrect as written, but it doesn’t say what the author intended. Here is what the author meant to say:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The difference? The second version of the sentence shows that it is about a subgroup of CNCP patients ‘whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed’. There are many CNCP patients in the world and only some of them suffer in this manner. The first version says that all CNCP patients have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. Because of the commas, we have to read the relative clause as supplementary information about all CNCP patients. Technically, our first sentence could be reworded as follows:

CNCP patients [all of them] have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. CNCP patients start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

Rewording the sentence in this way reflects the fact that the original sentence portrayed the relative clause as supplementary. But the author’s intention was not to provide extra information about this group of patients; instead, the author wanted to define a particular group of patients under discussion. The lack of commas in our revised version indicate that the information following the relative pronoun is integral to the antecedent noun:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The bolding emphasizes the integration of the relative clause. This integration is conveyed to the reader by the absence of commas. When we do use commas, we are telling the reader that we are providing supplementary information.

I chose this example because it is easy to see—even without being familiar with the subject matter—that the punctuation in the original sentence was probably misleading. One of the great difficulties in explaining how to punctuate relative clauses is that context matters. I always tell students to take whatever I have said about punctuating relative clauses home with them: only in applying those principles to their own sentences—sentences that they themselves fully grasp—will they come to understand whether a relative clause is integral or supplementary.

If you are familiar with this topic, you will notice that I am not using the traditional terminology (restrictive and nonrestrictive) or the usual variants (defining and non-defining, essential and inessential, identifying and non-identifying). It is possible, of course, to explain what is meant by these terms, but I have never found the common terminology to be particularly intuitive. More recently, I have noticed people using the terms integral relative clause and supplementary relative clause. I find these terms to be more intuitive, which is why I have started to use them in my classroom teaching. I would be interested to know if anyone has thoughts about whether this different terminology is helpful or just confusing.

Now let’s look at some more examples to reinforce the distinction between integral and supplementary relative clauses.

There are many narratives that can be used to illuminate the psychological concept of extraversion.

The relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘narratives’. The sentence isn’t just telling us that there are many narratives. It is telling us that there are many narratives that can be used in a particular fashion.

The philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty will set the tone for the proceedings at the conference.

This sentence is telling us what will set the tone for this conference. And it isn’t just any philosophical approach: it is the philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty. Again, the relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘philosophical approach’. Now let’s look at some examples of supplementary relative clauses:

Given the educational conditions in Malawi, which is located in eastern Africa, creative teacher training programs are essential.

Using transactional memory, which requires special hardware or software support, will address the problems associated with using locks.

Theorists argue that gender equity, which is defined here in economic terms, is a crucial component in any attempt to address the global AIDS crisis.

In each of these cases, the antecedent of the relative clauses is completely sufficient without the relative clause. A country is a useful example since it is easy to see that you don’t need any additional information to know what is meant by Malawi. Its location within its continent is obviously supplementary information. Likewise, ‘transactional memory’ is a fully defined term: the fact that it requires special hardware or software support is extra information. Take that information away and the term itself is just as informative. In the third example, even though the supplementary relative clause claims to be defining ‘gender equity’, it is doing so in a supplementary way. The sentence is telling us that gender equity is crucial and it is also clarifying what gender equity means in this context.

Here is a final example, one that gives three different versions of the same sentence:

The articles, which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s, show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles that stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The first two sentences follow the pattern I have been discussing. I chose this example because it shows how easily ambiguity can arise when we’re not clear about the punctuation we need. The first sentence is discussing a group of articles and using its relative clause to give us extra information about when they were written. The second sentence, on the other hand, is using its relative clause to identify a particular subset of articles. The implication of the first sentence is that all the articles were written in the 70s and early 80s. The implication of the second sentence is that there is a broader group of articles (presumably spanning a broader time frame); the author is drawing your attention to a subset of that broader group. Needless to say, it is important for the author to clarify which is meant. In my own experience, the decision about how to punctuate relative clauses often helps me to clarify my own meaning. Similarly, in discussing this issue with students, it often emerges that they aren’t quite sure what they were hoping to convey through their punctuation choices.

But what of the third sentence? Is it the same as the second sentence or is it different? In other words, is it okay to use ‘which’ to introduce an integral relative clause? Yes, it is. But while I would love to leave it at that, I feel I should say something about how I view this issue. The good news is that we have already covered the important part: you must signal your intention to your reader through your use of commas. If the information is integral, skip the commas; if, on the other hand, the information is supplementary, show that with your use of commas. Simple enough. But you do need to choose a relative pronoun and, for many, that decision raises a certain anxiety. When I ask students about their habits in this regard, I get a range of replies (often involving something a high school English teacher once said): guessing and then feeling bad; turn taking (first ‘which’, then ‘that’); using ‘which’ because it is more formal; never thinking about it. For a fairly typical prescriptive discussion, see this post from APA Style. For a more nuanced, historical view, try Stan Carey’s excellent post on this topic (as usual, Carey also provides a very helpful roundup of what others have said about this issue).

Given the general uncertainty this topic engenders, what should we do? My own preference—and that is all it is, a preference—is to use ‘that’ without commas and ‘which’ with commas. The first part of this practice is unexceptionable: nobody uses ‘that’ to introduce supplementary information. It is the second part that causes heartache. Look at this simple table:

integral supplementary
that YES NO
which ?? YES

My preference is to replace those two question marks with a ‘NO’. Not, to repeat, because I think this use of ‘which’ is wrong, but only because I like the clarity and simplicity of reserving ‘which’ and ‘that’ for different uses. I start with the important question—do I need commas or not?—and then use that as the basis for my decision about what relative pronoun to use. I explain this to students in just these terms: once they have sorted out the important issue of how to punctuate, they are free to choose their relative pronouns however they wish. But I do stress that this distinction is often treated in more absolute terms in advice on scientific writing. Whether or not this is true across the board, I do suggest that students preparing scientific papers consider reserving ‘which’ for instances in which they are using commas to convey supplementarity. For me it all comes down to this principle: if our audience might find a particular usage to be ambiguous—even if we know that it is perfectly acceptable—it can make sense to avoid that usage.

There is much more that could be said, but this post is already far longer than a blog post should be! If there is anything that you see as needing further explanation or elaboration, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

This post is the fourth in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. The third dealt with the importance of knowing when you need a pair of commas.

Pairs of Commas

This post is the third in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. Today’s entry will discuss the way that some commas work best in pairs. Compare these three sentences:

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

The first sentence clearly conveys its meaning to the reader: there is an innovative new technique that has altered the way some surgery is performed. The reader is also given supplementary information: this technique was developed by some researcher named Woljert. This element (‘developed by Woljert’) either takes two commas (as in the first sentence) or takes no commas (‘This innovative new technique developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.’). A single comma here (as in both the second and third sentences) will throw off your readers because it doesn’t clarify the grammatical role of the adjacent information.

When clauses like this appear at the beginning or end of a sentence, the need for paired commas is obviated:

According to Chen, this new technique is very valuable.

This new technique is very valuable, according to Chen.

This new technique, according to Chen, is very valuable.

In each of the first two sentences, an additional comma becomes unnecessary because of the placement of the clause at the beginning or end of the sentence. In the third sentence, we see the need for two commas to clarify the role of this brief interruption. (Of course, you will have noticed that the first sentence sounds much better than the other two. You don’t generally want to give this sort of unimportant information such a prominent place at the end of the sentence. Similarly, you don’t generally want to interrupt a sentence in this fashion unless the interruption itself is significant.)

This use of one comma instead of two (or none) isn’t a particularly grammatically complex issue, but it is a frequent occurrence in the student writing I see. And while it isn’t fatal, it does make your reader’s life more difficult. In lots of cases, this mistake may just be random carelessness; it’s certainly easy to miss a comma here or there. But if you repeatedly use a single comma when two (or none) are needed, you  may be experiencing some confusion between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses: not knowing whether to use no commas (as you would for a restrictive clause) or two commas (as you would for a nonrestrictive clause), maybe you split the difference and use just one. Come back for the next comma post, in which I will try to sort out the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. As I will stress then, this distinction is most crucially an issue of punctuation, but I will also touch on the persistent dilemma experienced by writers trying to choose between ‘which’ and ‘that’.

Commas: Punctuating for Length

This post is the second in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions.

Today’s topic is the practice of putting commas in sentences as a response to the length of the sentence. Consider this example:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment, and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

The comma after ‘treatment’ is, as your grammar book will tell you, unnecessary. Indeed, putting a comma there might cause some readers to think that ‘focus on exploring’ is the start of an independent clause. To illustrate the redundancy of this comma, consider the same punctuation pattern in a very simple sentence:

I went to the store for milk, and eggs.

This sentence will look wrong to most of us since it separates ‘milk’ and ‘eggs’ when they are obviously meant to go together. There is no reason for a comma between ‘I went to the store for’ and ‘eggs’. We wouldn’t say ‘I went to the store for, eggs’. (We would, however, say, ‘I went to the store for milk, eggs, and avocados’ because we punctuate lists of three or more items differently than we do pairs. For more on lists, see here, here, and here.)

What, then, do we think about the comma usage in our first example? The grammar books suggest it is wrong. The analogy with a short sentence suggests that it is wrong. (Of course, I would certainly acknowledge that it is possible to refuse the logic that says ‘wrong in a short sentence, therefore wrong in a long sentence’. In fact, we do sometimes use punctuation differently in short and long sentences; Veni, vidi, vici invariably comes up in such discussions.) But whether it is wrong or not, this is a pattern of comma use that you will see in lots of respectable places.

My response to this uncertainty is to characterize this usage as non-standard rather than as wrong. This assessment alerts students to the fact that the usage may be ambiguous for some readers and may be out of place in some sentences. However, to me, the most salient thing about this type of comma use is that it is generally better to leave it in place than to remove it without further alteration of the sentence. Simply removing it may make your sentence more ‘correct’ but will likely also make it harder to read. Let’s look at our first example again, now with the non-standard comma removed:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

You can immediately see that this isn’t a good solution. The new sentence is much harder to read and, in fact, some might even read ‘outpatient treatment and focus’ as a single phrase and thus become confused about the sentence structure. What are our options when a pattern of comma usage isn’t standard and yet removing the comma only makes things worse?

The simplest revision would look something like this:

The purpose of these focus groups was both to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

Using ‘both’ serves to alert the reader that a pair is coming; since the reader is expecting the writer to offer a dual purpose, the reader will be anticipating a compound structure. The repetition of the ‘to’ (‘both to improve and to focus’) will be another hint to the reader as to how to read the sentence. Notice all the ‘ands’ in our example sentence; repeating an element like ‘to’ signals to the reader which ‘and’ is doing the heavy lifting.

Another option would be to restructure the sentence so that it explicitly anticipates the two purposes:

These focus groups had two main purposes: to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

In this case, the reader encounters ‘to improve’ and then ‘to focus’ with a prior understanding that there are two purposes; by providing that explicit information, the writer makes very certain that the reader will know how to read the sentence. The only downside to this structure is the possibility that it could overemphasize something that might actually be trivial:

The trip to the store had two main purposes: milk and eggs.

But in our original example, the writer seems to be giving important information about the current research, suggesting that the extra emphasis provided by the colon is warranted.

In sum, I think it is valuable to be aware of this pattern of comma use as non-standard. With that knowledge, you may go on using the comma in this way or you may choose to rephrase. My point is that, in many cases, the optimal solution won’t be to remove this comma without also altering the sentence in other ways. In some cases, of course, simple removal will work, but in more cases, when we punctuate for length, we are responding to a valuable intuition that the sentence won’t work without some additional aid for the reader.

Our next comma post will look at the importance of understanding when a comma can stand alone and when it needs a partner.