Thursday 15 October 2015

Commas, Names, and Chopsticks

Should you put commas around a person’s name? Trick question! It depends on the sentence.

My sister Irina is the one with the absinthe habit.

In some cases, names should be held between a pair of commas like a piece of sushi between chopsticks; in others, commas are as superfluous and undesirable as a chaperone at an orgy. The difference is whether or not the name is needed to understand the sentence.

  • The poet Yeats did not take rejection well.
  • The next poet on the syllabus, Yeats, did not take rejection well.

In the first example, removing the name would change the sentence. “What poet?” we’d wonder. “Who are they talking about?” In the second example, taking out Yeats doesn’t change the meaning. We still know who’s being talked about—the next poet on the syllabus.

Commas go around a name when it can be picked up and removed from the sentence without changing its meaning.

  • My sister Irina is the one with the limp and the absinthe habit.
  • My sister, Irina, is the one with the limp and the absinthe habit.

Which sentence is correct? Both are, but they’re describing different situations. In the first, the speaker has more than one sister. Take out the name, and you won’t know which of her many booze-addled sisters she’s talking about. The name is essential, so it has no commas.

In the second sentence, the speaker has only one sister. Take out Irina and the sentence tells you the same thing it did before. The name is nonessential, so it’s set off with commas. The framing commas signal an interruption, a psst! What they contain is side business—informative, maybe, but not an integral part of the sentence.

  • My werewolf, Duane, lives in the basement rec room.

This is fine if you only have one werewolf; his name can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. But what if you have a whole pack of werewolves stashed in your house? You need the word Duane so your reader won’t think you’re talking about your other werewolves, Geraldine, Wallace, and Leticia.

  • My werewolf Duane lives in the basement rec room with the rest of his pack.

Disclaimer: Though this used to be a hard-and-fast rule, in The Chicago Manual of Style’s compilation of Q&As, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? (2016), the authors say these sorts of commas are now optional where the meaning is obvious. So, for example, you may write “my husband Hieronymus is a painter” without fear that your readers will assume you have more than one husband.

Job Titles and Commas

Unnecessary commas like to creep in when a name follows a job title or description, but you can weed out the extras using the same principle as above.

  • Loyalist Spies and Their Lizards was written by renowned historian and amateur herpetologist Elena Gutierrez.

Without the name we are left scratching our heads and wondering “Who? Which historian/reptile enthusiast can they mean?” Her name is essential, therefore comma-less.

  • Loyalist Spies and Their Lizards was written by Belleville’s own renowned historian and amateur herpetologist, Elena Gutierrez.

Belleville can boast only one historian and herpetologist, so even without her name we’d still know who’s being referred to. Since the name can be plucked out without changing the sentence, it is set apart with a comma.

  • Chartered accountant Neville Wimsey dreamed of being a lion tamer.
  • Our company’s chartered accountant, Neville Wimsey, dreamed of being a lion tamer.

Direct Address Loves Commas

Another situation in which names need commas is when you are speaking to someone directly.

  • Fatima, I don’t think you understand what this eggplant means to me.
  • Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a go-go dancer!

Grab a flamingo, everyone!

Such names are always set off with commas—even when they’re not actually names:

  • Death, where is thy sting?
  • Grab a flamingo, everyone, and start playing!

In fact, the chopsticks-and-sushi rule can apply to all kinds of words and phrases. This is where grammar nerds like to throw around the terms restrictive clause and nonrestrictive clause, meaning words that are essential to the sentence and words that are not. But I’ll save more on that for a later post. In the meantime, reader, pick up your commas and dig in!

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