What's wrong with this picture? Aside from the obvious, we mean. When the Toronto Star ran this story about Lindsay Lohan's jail sentence, it was accompanied by the photo and this caption:
Actress Lindsay Lohan is flanked by her mother Dina Lohan and attorney Shawn Chapman Holley as she waits to go through the metal detector at the Beverly Hills Municipal Courthouse.
Where did the Star go wrong? The caption failed to use commas to set off each appositive, which is a noun or noun phrase that re-identifies the noun that comes immediately before or after it. In this sentence, the names of Lindsay's mother and attorney are appositives.
- Use commas to set off a non-restrictive appositive, which means that it is not essential for the sentence to make sense. Actress Lindsay Lohan is flanked by her mother, Dina Lohan, and attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley. The names of her mother and attorney are non-restrictive, because she has only one mother and one attorney. You could remove their names and the sentence would still have the same essential meaning: Actress Lindsay Lohan is flanked by her mother and attorney.
- Do not use commas when the appositive phrase is restrictive. Sometimes the appositve phrase is necessary to clarify the noun. This happens most often when the noun could be referring to one of multiple persons or things. For example, let's suppose that Lindsay had two attorneys. In that case, the name Shawn Chapman Holley would be restrictive because the word "attorney" could also refer to somebody else. The sentence, then, would be: Actress Lindsay Lohan is flanked by her mother, Dina Lohan, and attorney Shawn Chapman Holley.
Try this: Ask yourself if there are more than one of the nouns. For example:
John visited his sister Sarah in Florida.To figure out if you need to use commas around 'Sarah,' ask how many sisters John has.
- If Sarah is his one and only sister, we need commas: John visited his sister, Sarah, in Florida. You could eliminate Sarah's name and there would be no doubt that she is the sister in question: John visited his sister in Florida.
- If he has other sisters, then we don't need commas: John visited his sister Sarah in Florida. You can't eliminate Sarah's name without leaving doubt as to which sister John was visiting. Was he visiting Sarah, Sally or Samantha?
- Actress Lindsay Lohan is flanked by her mother, Dina Lohan, and attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, as she waits to go through the metal detector at the Beverly Hills Municipal Courthouse.
Conquer the comma: