A reader requests clarification on the punctuation of appositives:
I would like to see a piece on the punctuation of appositives. Decades ago, I somehow came to believe that an appositive in which the first noun is general and the second noun is specific is not offset by commas. Conversely, if the first noun of an appositive is specific and the second is general, then commas are appropriate. Here’s an example:
General noun followed by specific noun: My cousin Bob played baseball with us.
Specific noun followed by general noun: Bob, my cousin, played baseball with us.
Is there such a rule? Is it incorrect or less correct to punctuate the first sentence as follows: “My cousin, Bob, played baseball with us”?
First, a reminder of what an appositive is:
An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows another noun and tells more about it. The second noun is said to be “in apposition to” the first.
Apposition is “the action of putting or placing one thing next to another.”
The reader uses the terms “general” and “specific” in an effort to establish the difference that determines commas vs no commas. These terms are not helpful. In the examples given, “My cousin Bob” is no more specific than “my cousin.”
More useful terms here are “essential” and “nonessential.” The need for commas is determined by how essential the second noun is to the overall meaning of the sentence.
If the second noun provides essential information, no commas are needed.
If the second noun provides nonessential information, it is set off by commas to show that it can be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Let’s look at the reader’s examples.
Depending upon how many cousins the speaker has, the sentences can be written as follows:
My cousin, Bob, played baseball with us.
The speaker has only one cousin. Leaving out the name does not change the fact that the cousin played baseball with them. Therefore, the name Bob is nonessential information.
My cousin Bob played baseball with us.
The speaker has more than one cousin. The name Bob is necessary to indicate which one played baseball with them. The name provides essential information so it is not set off by commas.
Bob, my cousin, played baseball with us.
In this sentence, if the listener is acquainted with Bob as someone who plays baseball, the family relationship is nonessential information.
Here are a few more examples.
Samuel Johnson’s play Irene ran for nine nights in London in 1749. (Irene was the only play Johnson wrote.)
The Daily Telegraph gave Ibsen’s play about venereal disease, Ghosts, a scathing review in 1891. (Ghosts is the only one of Ibsen’s plays that is about this topic.)
Joan of Arc’s father, Jacques, dreamed she left the village with soldiers. (Joan had only one father. His name is nonessential in this sentence.)
Joan’s brother Pierre fought with her at Orléans. (Joan had two other brothers.)
Note on the terms essential and nonessential
In my explanation, the term essential corresponds to the grammar term restrictive.
Nonessential corresponds to the term nonrestrictive. Fowler (Modern English Usage) used the terms defining and non-defining for these concepts.
Choose the terms that make the most sense to you.
essential/restrictive/defining = NO commas (because the information is necessary to the meaning of the sentence.)
nonessential/restrictive/non/defining = COMMAS (because the information can be left out without altering the meaning of the sentence.)
Note on “leaving out” nonessential appositive
Just because the nonessential appositive can be left out does not mean that it should be. The classification is simply a way to decide whether or not commas are needed.