5 Common Errors in Punctuating Appositives

By Mark Nichol

An appositive is a word or phrase that refers to the same idea as another word or phrase in proximity. The phrase “my friend John” contains two appositives, because “my friend” and “John” are two ways of identifying that person I know well.

For many writers, how to punctuate appositives is problematic. Here are some erroneous uses of punctuation with appositives:

1. “My sister Jane is a pain.”

Whether this sentence is correct or not, actually, depends on specific knowledge: Does the writer have more than one sister? If so, the sentence is correct. If not, this sister’s name should be set off by commas, and a clarifying modifier like older (unless there are two or more sisters of greater age) preceding her name would be helpful.

If you’re editing such a sentence, and you don’t have details, it’s best to omit commas. (Traditionally, father or mother would imply that the person in question is in a class all by himself or herself, necessitating commas, but it’s possible to have more than one of each.)

2. “This year’s spotlights include a tribute to Asian American film legend, Anna May Wong.”

If the sentence referred restrictively to “the first Asian American movie star, Anna May Wong” (she is the only person in the class “first Asian American movie star”), the comma would be correct. But the adjectival phrase “Asian American film legend” is merely what is called a temporary epithet; it could refer to other people as well.

The error perhaps derives from confusion with the correct construction “Anna May Wong, the Asian American film legend.” But as is, the sentence should have no comma.

3. “The typical manufacturing worker earned $44,680 last year, according to the New York-based research firm, Towers Perrin.”

This error mirrors that in the preceding example; it can afflict references to inanimate entities as well as descriptions of people. The comma preceding the firm’s name erroneously implies that only one New York-based research firm exists, and it is therefore erroneous (unless there was a previous reference, not by name, to the specific company).

4. “The crowd was being seated for the performance artist’s newest show Say No More.”

The opposite problem is on display here. The phrase “newest show” restricts the show title; only one show by the performance artist can be his or her newest, so a restrictive comma after show is necessary. The phrase “the performance artist’s show Say No More,” however, includes no qualifiers and therefore requires no comma.

5. “I read the book, The Chicago Manual of Style, from cover to cover in one sitting.”

In trumpeting this masochistic achievement, the writer is suggesting that the volume in question is the only one in existence; it is “the book.” But bibliophiles have other options, so the writer should respect that fortunate fact by omitting both commas from this sentence.

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15 Responses to “5 Common Errors in Punctuating Appositives”

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for pointing out these punctuation errors. I will refer back to this post when I use appositives.

  • Kathryn

    Oh, interesting and helpful. Applying my understanding of the rule, I do have a question about the statement that “[t]he phrase “’the performance artist’s show Say No More,’ however, includes no qualifiers and therefore requires no comma.”

    If this is the first show that particular performance artist has ever put on (and therefore, the artist’s only show), would it not be correct to use the commas? But also, perhaps, correct not to use the commas?

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    “Oh, interesting and helpful. Applying my understanding of the rule, I do have a question about the statement that ‘[t]he phrase “the performance artist’s show Say No More,” however, includes no qualifiers and therefore requires no comma.

    “If this is the first show that particular performance artist has ever put on (and therefore, the artist’s only show), would it not be correct to use the commas? But also, perhaps, correct not to use the commas?”

    The writer should specify, then, that it is the artist’s first show: “. . . the performance artist’s debut show, Say No More.” If the show (first or otherwise) has already been referred to, a comma is necessary. It can be omitted only if the context makes clear that the artist has performed more than one show.

  • ApK

    Any one else notice that example #4 is wrong, because, it’s correct:

    4. “The crowd was being seated for the performance artist’s newest show Say No More.”

    It’s supposed to to have an illustrative mistake, but it doesn’t have the mistake, so it’s a mistake.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @ApK, the mistake is the missing comma after “show.” The author clearly said that in the explanatory paragraph.

  • Kathryn

    I’m actually now finding myself puzzled by the first example.

    If I understand you correctly “My sister Jane is a pain” is correct if Jane is one of multiple sisters, but if she is the only sister it should be “My sister, Jane, is a pain.” But that doesn’t seem to match up with the continued advice: “and a clarifying modifier like older (unless there are two or more sisters of greater age) preceding her name would be helpful.” If Jane is my only sister, what is the point of the clarifying modifier? And, um, if she is my only sister, there can’t be two or more sisters (in this universe, at least). Was that part of the advice intended to apply to the earlier notation that the phrase without commas is correct when there are multiple sisters? In which case, it would seem that “My older sister, Jane, is a pain” would be correct.

    I grow more confused by the moment.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    I’m sorry; this explanation could have been clearer. The sentence is correct as shown if the writer has more than one sister, but a comma is required if the writer specifies which sister: “My older sister, Jane, is a pain.” A comma is also required, however, in the original sentence if Jane is the only sister: “My sister, Jane, is a pain.”

  • ApK

    “@ApK, the mistake is the missing comma after “show.” The author clearly said that in the explanatory paragraph.”

    Oops. I read “so a restrictive comma after show is necessary” as “so no restrictive comma after show is necessary.”

    My way was funnier, though.

  • Kathryn

    Thanks, Mark–I thought that’s what you meant, but so many apparently simple rules turn out to be anything but when one starts poking at them with real world examples. I really did find this post very interesting; I thought most of your examples were intuitively obvious (the result, I suspect, of YEARS of steady reading), but would have been hard put to it to devise a unifying principle. Thanks!

  • Donna

    RE #5: The writer should respect Strunk & White (“omit needless words”):

    “I read The Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover in one sitting.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Donna:

    Certainly, “the book” is extraneous in this example. “I read the editing handbook The Chicago Manual of Style in one sitting” would be appropriate in a context in which the content of the book is not apparent.

  • Amanda

    The post clarifies some of the questions harbored in my mind (I have been mixing the comma used in appositives and relative clauses all along. What a shame). Thanks. But I still have a question. Does the rules listed above also apply to title? For example:

    Martin, the Capital: does it mean there is only one capital?
    Martin the Capital: does it mean there are more than one capital?

    Thanks.

  • Amanda

    Oh, I mean Captain, not capital.

  • Mark Nichol

    Amanda:

    “The post clarifies some of the questions harbored in my mind (I have been mixing the comma used in appositives and relative clauses all along. What a shame). Thanks. But I still have a question. Does the rules listed above also apply to title? For example:

    “Martin, the Captain: does it mean there is only one captain?
    “Martin the Captain: does it mean there are more than one captain?”

    First, there’s no reason to capitalize the term captain.

    Second, let me pose complete sentences; the additional context will help illustrate my points:

    “Martin, the captain, approached the helm.” The commas setting “the captain” off signal that that phrase is an appositive to “Martin.” Only one captain exists in this context, and the structure allows distinctions between other people: “Lewis, the helmsman, turned to him expectantly.”

    “Martin the captain” is logical only if there’s more than one Martin: “Martin the captain wore his dress uniform, while Martin the lieutenant was still in his combat fatigues.” But it’s more likely that in such a case, you’d use each Martin’s job title before his name.

    Nor would you likely write “Martin the captain wore his dress uniform, but Lewis the captain was attired in his combat fatigues.” “Captain Martin wore . . . Captain Lewis was . . .” would be better.

  • venqax

    Also remember to use words carefully. E.g., Anna May Wong, or Anna Can Wong, mean 2 different things depending on whether the statement refers to Anna’s Wonging ability, or having permission.

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