Cranking up the blog again has inspired me to try an occasional feature on Fridays geared toward fixing some of the more vexatious issues that many people face when they’re communicating, either for work or for play. Hence I chose the moniker, “Friday Fix-it.”
Many people won’t or don’t. It involves a punctuation rule for commas relating to a relatively simple grammar situation that many of us may have learned as a fifth-grader but then promptly forgot. It involves apposition, and I see people making mistakes with commas in relation to it all the time. It’s time to fix it!
Right. Aaaannnd here’s where you click over to something more interesting. But wait! Humor me and read what apposition means:
“Apposition: an arrangement of words in which a noun or noun phrase is followed by another noun or noun phrase that refers to the same thing.” (from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary)
Pretty simple, or so it would seem. But our sometimes fiendish friend the comma once again complicates things.
See, when the second “noun or noun phrase” — known as an appositive — is key to the meaning of the first noun or noun phrase, or even the sentence in general, it should not be separated by a comma or two. But when that second noun or noun phrase (the appositive) is entirely and essentially redundant and repetitive, and perhaps not even needed, you should separate it with commas. My reference to our “sometimes fiendish friend the comma” in the previous paragraph is punctuated correctly since “the comma” (the appositive in that sentence) is absolutely necessary to the meaning of the sentence.
Let’s go over a couple of other examples to show how this should work:
What if you wrote: “The President, Barack Obama, gave a great speech.” The words “Barack Obama” are in apposition to the words “The President.” Are commas OK to insert around “Barack Obama”? Yes! This sentence is correctly punctuated because there’s only one President (at least in the United States) and, in theory, all of your readers will know who it is. Adding the President’s actual name isn’t key to the meaning of “President” in this case and, in fact, could be deleted from the sentence without substantially altering its meaning.
How about this one: “The great writer, Mark Twain, loved satire.” This is the kind of mistake I see all the time. Here, the commas are incorrectly inserted before and after his name because “great writer” is too generic or unspecific to describe just Mark Twain. Correctly punctuated, this is how it should read: “The great writer Mark Twain loved satire.”
In the first example, did you really need to be reminded that it was Barack Obama that gave the great speech since the President was already identified as the person who gave the great speech? No.
But in the second example, you absolutely need to include Mark Twain to give the sentence any real meaning at all. If you set his name apart with commas, you are indicating to the reader that you think there is only one great writer, ever. Put another way, could you delete the reference to Twain and have the sentence still mean essentially the same thing?
Here’s one other example to really grind this into your memory. Which sentence is correctly punctuated?
1. Jack’s mother, Barbara, gave him a ride to school.
2. Jack’s mother Barbara gave him a ride to school.
Answer: the first one. The noun “Barbara” is in apposition to the noun “mother.” The easy way to figure out whether or not to use commas around “Barbara” would be to ask yourself how many mothers does Jack have? Hopefully, he has only one (and mothers-in-law don’t count!). What if you took out the reference to “Barbara”? Would the sentence essentially still communicate the same meaning? If yes, then use the commas to separate the noun in apposition.
If you need a rule or want to sound all pointy-headed grammarian about it, you can say that in this particular example where the appositive “Barbara” is non-restrictive, you should separate it from the rest of the sentence with commas. Conversely, all restrictive appositives should not be set apart by commas.
Or you could try to remember it by this little bit of zen: If I need to keep the appositive in the sentence, keep the commas out. If I could take out the appositive in the sentence, keep the commas in.
Either way you like to think about it, it’s pretty easy to understand once you get the hang of it. And you’ll never improperly punctuate appositives, or nouns in apposition, again.