Because the word “rather” can serve as an adverb, conjunction, or preposition in a sentence, the rules about when to use a comma with it may seem frighteningly complex. For instance, can you use “rather” after a comma?
The only time you can use “rather” after a comma is when using it in parenthetical punctuation in the middle of a sentence as a parenthetical interrupter. As an adverb, “rather” usually doesn’t require a comma unless it is part of a dependent clause, in which case it follows the same rules as subordinate clauses. We do not use rather after a comma as a dependent, second clause in a sentence.
In this article, we will define the many different roles in a sentence that “rather” often fills. We will explain you can correctly use a comma in each case and give some clear examples. Above all, as we learn the proper uses of commas with this word, we will have some fun.
When to Use a Comma with “Rather”
On its own, “rather” is an adverb that describes or modifies verbs, adjectives, or phrases. Generally, adjectives describe the place, time, frequency, manner, and purpose in a sentence (source).
Here are some examples of how adverbs work in these ways:
- Describing place: He sat close to the campfire.
- Describing time: They left the party early.
- Describing frequency: The students are often upset with their homework.
- Describing manner: She ran home from school quickly.
- Describing purpose: He watched the raccoon, seeing if it would run away.
As the final example demonstrates, adverbs can take the form of phrases as well as individual words. Adverbs have the added distinction of being able to move around in a sentence often without changing the meaning:
- She eagerly climbed the tree.
- She climbed the tree eagerly.
When functioning as an adverb, “rather” typically expresses degree, comparison, or preference. The word “rather” itself is defined as an adverb of degree, meaning “very” or “too a large degree.”
“Rather” is often coupled with the word “would” as an adverb of comparison, as shown in the last examples below (source).
- It is rather hot to go outside, don’t you think?
- There is a rather steep climb from the parking lot to the pond.
- I would rather wait for the cows to come home than to go looking for them.
- I would rather play tennis than diagram sentences.
Note that there is only one comma in these three examples, and it is in the first sentence to denote a confirmatory question. This reveals that, when used as an adverb, the word “rather” typically does not require a comma.
It does, however, require a comma when you use it as a conjunctive adverb.
Rather as A Conjunctive Adverb
One case where we do use a comma after “rather” is when it begins a sentence and refers to something stated in the previous sentence. Here it functions like a conjunctive adverb similar to “however” or “instead” (source).
- The dog could have chosen to eat the food in its bowl. Rather, he sat by the supper table begging.
- The patient did not agree to have surgery. Rather, she decided to get a second opinion.
- The girl did not want the salad. Rather, she ate ice cream instead.
Since these sentences are so closely related, you could use a semicolon instead of a period. The requires you to use a lower case “r” instead of a capital “R.”
- The dog could have chosen to eat the food in its bowl; rather, he sat by the supper table begging.
- The patient did not agree to have surgery; rather, she decided to get a second opinion.
- The girl did not want the salad; rather, she ate ice cream instead.
As a conjunctive adverb, you would not surround “rather” with commas, so the following sentence is incorrect:
- The girl did not want the salad, rather, she ate ice cream instead.
“Rather” as A Parenthetical Interrupter
In the next examples, we use “rather” as a parenthetical interrupter. You could remove it entirely, and the sentence would still make sense.
In American English, the only time you will use rather after a comma is when you use it as a parenthetical interrupter.
You can use commas around “rather” to add emphasis or serve as a conjunctive adverb, as in these examples:
- I didn’t want to discourage you but, rather, to inspire you.
- That is, rather, a parenthetical, which you surround with commas.
You can use conjunctive adverbs in this manner if they interrupt the sentence, but do not use them this way to connect sentences. You should be able to remove it and have the sentence still make sense.
- I didn’t want to discourage you but to inspire you.
- That is a parenthetical, which you surround with commas.
For more on the use of the phrase “but rather,” make sure you read our article, “Is It Correct to Say, ‘But Rather’?”
You can also use a clause containing the phrase “rather than” as a parenthetical:
- Ordering toast, rather than biscuits, is the best choice for those who are dieting.
- Because he wanted to get an autograph, rather than simply buying the book, he stood in line to meet the author.
Using A Comma with “Rather Than”
We almost always find “rather than” in compound sentences containing one or more independent clauses or an independent clause combined with a dependent clause.
An independent clause can stand by itself as a sentence because it contains a subject and a verb, while a dependent clause relies on the subject of an independent clause to form a complete sentence.
Dependent clauses are also called subordinate clauses, and, in complex sentences, they can function as adverbs, conjunctions, or nouns.
“Rather than” functions as a subordinating conjunction in clauses, making what comes before it or after it subordinate or dependent (source).
“Rather Than” as A Coordinating Conjunction
A conjunction is a word that connects different phrases in a sentence or different descriptions in a list.
Officially, there are seven different coordinating conjunctions in English: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. One helpful way to remember these conjunctions is that they form the acronym “FANBOYS” (source).
“Rather than” has gained acceptance as a conjunctive phrase or coordinating conjunction, making eight conjunctions in the English language (source)
“Rather than” is a conjunction when it makes a comparison between two parallel grammatical constructions. We can use it to contrast parallel verbs, adjectives, nouns, adverbs, and prepositions (source).
“Rather than” is contrasting two things or choosing one thing instead of another. Below are a couple of examples of “rather than” used as a conjunction:
- He decided to eat pie rather than cake.
- Rather than walk, she ran.
In each sentence, “rather than” is part of a subordinate clause, but we use a comma in only one of them. When the subordinate clause is at the beginning of the sentence, we use a comma. When it is the second clause in the sentence, we do not use a comma.
For more on coordinating conjunctions, check out, “Using ‘But’ after ‘Although’: Can It Be Used and Why?”
“Rather Than” as A Preposition
“Rather than” as a preposition means “instead of,” and we use it at the start of a subordinate clause with a gerund. Unlike conjunctions with “rather than,” the verbs are not parallel.
A comma is correct when “rather” precedes “than” and the main clause follows the subordinate clause, as with these examples:
- Rather than going back out in the blizzard, we decided to sit by the fire.
- Rather than remaining as a fugitive, she decided to turn herself in.
Remember, when we use “rather than” as a preposition, a present participle takes the place of the noun in the dependent clause. A present participle is a verb with the suffix -ing added. In the two examples above, the participles were “going” and “having.”
In contrast, here are two sentences where the main clause is at the beginning, and the subordinate adverbial phrase is at the end:
- We’re sitting by the fire rather than going back out in the blizzard.
- She decided to turn herself in rather than remaining a fugitive.
Note in the two examples above that there is no comma before “rather.” Whenever a subordinate clause is at the end of a sentence, there is no comma before it.
You can use “rather” after a comma if you’re using it as a parenthetical interrupter.
More commonly, you will use it after a period or semicolon at the beginning of a sentence, followed by a comma, as a conjunctive adverb to contrast something from the previous sentence.
“Rather” is a super word. It couples with other words, especially, “would” and “than,” to make some clear, powerful expressions, and it can be an adverb, preposition, conjunction, or even an exclamation — Rather!