Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Commas: Accentuating the Appositive

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.

Quick rules:
  • 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:


  1. I'm loving your blog and just started reading it this morning, but shouldn't there be a serial comma in your example of the sisters' names? Hence, "Was he visiting Sarah, Sally, or Samantha"

  2. Thanks, lily-lemony! The serial comma, a.k.a. the "Oxford comma," is common usage but not required. You'll notice that most newspapers leave it out. But if you like it, use it! I admit that sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

  3. What if one isn't certain whether John has one or more sisters? When in doubt, should the comma be used or not?

    1. this is a very basic problem with this rule, and it's worse in reverse. should i be inferring how many sisters john has by the presence or absence of commas, particularly given that the writer may not have known himself? it's nonsense. i would say that the use of commas with appositives sometimes improves the clarity of the overall sentence and sometimes hampers it, and they should be included or omitted solely on that basis. for example, when two nouns are joined with a conjunction, an appositive should generally be affixed without commas so as not to be mistakenly interpreted as another element in the list.

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  6. خدمات منزلية جيدة تحل لك الكثير من المشاكل المنزلية التي تكون مزعجة لكم مثل تسريبات المياه التي تظهر بالحوائط والاسقف وتحتاج الي
    شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالدمام تكون متخصصة للحصول علي سبب التسريب بدون تكسير وتخريب فالتعامل مع
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  7. شركات الماسة تقدم لكم شركة جلى رخام جدة
    فنحن نساعدك على عمل جلى رخام جدة
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    لديها أفضل ماكينات جلى بلاط جدة
    كما اننا فى شركة شركة جلى سيراميك جدة
    لدينا احدث أدوات جلى سيراميك جدة
    كما ان شركتنا تعتبر افضل شركة جلى رخام جدة وبشهادة العملاء نعتبر افضل شركة جلى بلاط جدة ونعتبر أيضا افضل شركة جلى سيراميك جدة كما أن لدينا افضل اسعار جلي بلاط جدة

  8. In the United States we consider our laws to be fair, and give everyone a fair shake. Everyone in the US is considered equal under the law, and even though we fall down from that ideal from time to time, at least we know what we stand for, and we push back to that line. See more gmat waiver letter example

  9. قدرة عالية للتخلص من مشكلة تسربات مواسير الصرف تقدمها لكم شركة تسليك مجارى بالدمام التي تتميز بوجود فريق رائع في تحقيق أفضل النتائج فهم يتميزون بالدقة و الكفاءة العالية في إتمام الأعمال .

    للتواصل الآن عبر :-

  10. فرصة هائلة للتواصل عبر رقم ال جي يمكنكم الحصول علي خدمات توكيل صيانة ال جي المميزة التي تقدمها من خلال كبري مراكز توكيل صيانة ال جي المتواجدة بجميع فروعها علي مستوي المحافظات .

    للتواصل يمكنكم عبر :-

  11. فرص رائعة لأفضل خدمة ابادة حشرات تقدمها لكم الشركة الفرنسية التي تقدم أفضل اسعار شركات مكافحة حشرات بمصر
    حيث أنها تعد من أكبر شركات مكافحة حشرات بجميع أنحاء المحافظات .

    للتواصل الآن عن طريق موقعنا هذا :-