Punctuation is all about meaning, this also holds true when talking about today’s topic: ‘Comma before rather.’
Though it may appear that strict rules must be followed, their purpose is to clarify the meaning for the reader and simplify their lives.
For instance, a classic example that you can find online goes like this.
Let’s eat, Grandma!
The above is an invitation to your grandmother to go and eat. However, if you remove that comma, things take a dark tone.
Let’s eat Grandma!
This is a sinister invitation with cannibalistic undertones. What kind of monster are you?
Anyway, punctuation is all about meaning, so it’s no surprise that when words have different meanings, their punctuation also differs accordingly.
A perfect case in point is the word “rather.”
It can have various meanings, function as different parts of speech, and appear in different locations within a sentence. All of these factors contribute to the surrounding punctuation being a bit tricky.
Comma before rather
Usage of a comma before ‘rather’ depends on its role in a sentence. It’s needed when ‘rather’ is a conjunction or interjection, but incorrect when it’s an adverb or predeterminer.
The many faces of “rather”
According to the Macmillan Dictionary, “rather” has several definitions, each making up its own part of speech.
”Rather” as an adverb that modifies other words
The most common usage of “rather” is as an adverb. It can modify an adjective, a verb, or another adverb.
In most cases, it means to a reasonably large degree.
However, it can also be used to imply that this size is an inconvenience or a bad thing.
Here, “rather” modifies the adjective “hungry” by adding a degree to the hunger involved.
In the above sentence, “rather” modifies the adverb “awkwardly.”
Finally, “rather” here modifies the verb “try.”
In the above, not only is “rather” modifying the adjective “long,” but it is also telling us that the speaker found this length inconveniencing.
”Rather” as a predeterminer
Determiners define a noun and let us know which object we are talking about. Obvious ones include “the,” “a,” “an,” “his,” and “mine.”
Now, a predeterminer is a word that comes before the determiner, such as “both” and “plenty of.”
These words add more context to the noun, usually quantifying them for us.
“Rather” can serve the function of a predeterminer.
This is not the same as He carries a rather good wine.
In the first example, “rather” is a predeterminer, whereas it is an adverb in the second example.
”Rather” as a conjunctive adverb
A conjunctive adverb is basically an adverb that acts as a conjunction. It ties two sentences together, showing how they are related in meaning somehow.
Famous examples include “however,” “nevertheless,” and “regardless.”
“Rather” can also serve that same function. It can be used to show that while the previous statement might have been fallacious in some sense, the succeeding sense is true.
”Rather” as an indicator of preference
Let’s get something straight. “Rather” is not a verb. It’s true that language is always changing and morphing, and it is also true that in plenty of colloquial speech, you might find people using “rather” as a verb.
After all, we have all heard someone say “I rather he didn’t come with us” or “I rather this stay between us.”
However, these are all “incorrect” usages of the word that rely on an implicit understanding that there is an omitted verb.
Maybe, one day, the word “rather” will become a verb in its own right, but until that day comes, you should be aware that you can’t use it on its own, especially in formal writing.
With all that said, “rather” can be used to indicate preference when added to the word “would,” forming the modal auxiliary verb “would rather.”
When used in this sense, “I would rather” has the same meaning as “I would prefer.”
It is worth noting that even though “would rather” and “prefer to” are synonyms, “would rather” is more personal and informal, while “prefer to” is better suited to formal writing.
”Rather” as part of a construction
The word “rather” can come as part of a construction, and said construction would act as its own grammatical unit. Let’s see a few of these constructions.
You can use “or rather” when you want to correct yourself or when you are trying to be more specific.
“Rather than” is a tricky one. You see, it can function either as a conjunction or as a preposition. Its role depends on the nature of the sentence within which it is embedded.
On the one hand, the phrase “rather than” can act as a conjunction phrase.
It can be used to tie two contrasting ideas together.
Parallelism will apply here, and the grammatical construction on the left of “rather than” will be the same as the one on the right.
In the above sentence, “rather than” is both preceded and succeeded by infinitive verbs. Don’t be surprised if the “to” is omitted from the verb following “rather than.” That’s just how it’s conventionally written.
The man writes patiently rather than hurriedly.
On the other hand, when “rather than” acts as a preposition, it performs similarly to “instead of” and is used as the head of subordinate clauses.
And, since “rather than” doesn’t function as a conjunction here, you shouldn’t expect parallelism to hold.
While the first verb in the above sentence is in the past simple tense, the verb following “rather than” is written in the present participle form, making it a gerund.
”not… but rather”
This construction serves a function very similar to the adverbial conjunction. They both tie contrasting ideas.
However, the difference is while the adverbial conjunction ties two independent sentences together, “not… but rather” acts as a conjunction that ties different ideas within the same sentence.
Consequently, parallelism does apply here.
Back to the punctuation (comma before rather)
Phew… that was a lot of ground to cover.
The good news is that the hard part is over, and all that is left is to figure out the appropriate punctuation for each type of “rather.”
Trust me, so long as you understood everything we just said, what follows should be a breeze for you.
”Rather” the adverb
This “rather” needs no punctuation with it. So, no comma before rather in this case. It modifies a certain word and should be attached to said word without any separators. Nevertheless, there might be a comma before “rather” if the entire phrase warrants it.
There were several details, rather juicy details if you ask me, that were uncovered over the past few weeks.
In the above sentence, the comma before “rather” is there because “rather juicy details if you ask me” is an interrupting phrase.
The word “rather” itself has no bearing on how this sentence is punctuated.
”Rather” the predeterminer
There are rarely any circumstances where any comma before or after “rather” would be appropriate here.
However, the sentence itself might dictate otherwise, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with the word “rather.”
Although the latter sentence is grammatically correct, it sounds weird and off.
”Rather” the conjunctive adverb
Now, this type of “rather” does need punctuation. It usually comes at the beginning of an independent clause, which is why it is always followed by a comma.
And, it can be preceded by either a period or a semicolon.
However, what it cannot be preceded by is a comma.
Both of the above sentences are perfectly correct, you can use either.
However, the following sentence is incorrect.
“Rather” is not a coordinating conjunction, and it can’t be treated as one.
Simply put, you should treat the conjunctive adverb “rather” the same way you would treat the word “however.”
”Rather” the indicator of preference
There is no need for punctuation here unless the sentence requires it. But, under normal circumstances, “would rather” doesn’t take any commas before or after it.
”Rather” in constructions
The phrase “or rather” is preceded by a comma, and it along with the phrase or clause adjoined to it may be followed by a comma or a period, depending on where it is in the sentence.
We’ve seen how “rather than” can behave as either a conjunction or a preposition. In both cases, the usage of a comma depends on where it is in the sentence.
If “rather than” comes at the end of a sentence, then there is no need for a comma.
Alternatively, if it comes at the beginning of a sentence, then you will need to use a comma at the end of its phrase.
”not… but rather”
Since this construction acts as a conjunction, you don’t need to use commas with it.
Moreover, there is no scenario here where “rather” will come at the beginning of a sentence so you don’t have to worry about that.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.