The Red Pen: Comma Casualties, Part 1

Welcome to The Red Pen, formerly known as We Need to Talk About Grammar! It’s been pointed out to me quite a bit that since I’ve been mostly talking about incorrect word choices, it’s not exactly grammar I’ve been griping over. But my editor’s brain will not be denied, so instead of scrapping the feature altogether (which I considered), I’ve just renamed it to The Red Pen, which I think better captures my tendency to edit everything I read, even when I try not to.

Today’s discussion is on something that bugs me more than most grammatical errors: misplaced commas. They’re everywhere, and they trip me up constantly as I’m reading because they make me pause in all the wrong places! There are tons of different ways you can mess up commas, though, so I’m only going to stick to one today: those used around appositives.

Essentially, an appositive is a noun phrase used to describe another noun phrase. When an appositive is essential to the meaning of a sentence, you don’t use commas; when it isn’t essential, you do. So, like Grammar Girl says, if there’s extra information (i.e. nonessential information), use extra commas:

My friend Jess loves much of the same music I do.

My mom, a fantastic cook, makes the best spare ribs in the world.

Now, in the first sentence, “Jess” describes the clause “My friend,” and her name is essential information because I need to specify which friend. Had I said “My friend, Jess, loves…” it would be implying that Jess is my only friend, and that y’all would have known who I was talking about without specifying her name.

In the second example, “a fantastic cook” is used to describe “My mom.” The phrase, though true, isn’t essential to the original sentence because the sentence “My mom makes the best spare ribs in the world” is still grammatically correct, and its meaning isn’t changed by the presence or lack of the appositive.

I can’t tell you HOW many times I’ve seen this done badly. I think people like to hedge their bets by erring on the side of adding a comma if they’re not sure if they need one, but that generally makes for choppy, hard-to-read sentences. Check out the difference between these two:

Our newest contributor, Anna, is on the blog today talking about bagels.

Monthly contributor, Alexis, is on the blog today talking about lox.

The first sentence is correct; the second isn’t, and it’s variations of the second that I see ALL. THE. TIME.

Because there can only be one newest contributor, Anna’s name is nonessential—we can assume our audience would know who the new contributor is. But Alexis’s name is essential (assuming, of course, that there is more than one monthly contributor), and therefore the commas should be left out:

Monthly contributor Alexis is on the blog today talking about lox.

So remember, friends: if the appositive (aka adjectival noun phrase, or a noun or noun phrase that describes another noun or noun phrase) is essential, no commas surrounding it are necessary. If it’s nonessential, you need commas.

Nonessential → Need commas

Extra information → Extra commas

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