A Word, Please: On appositives, commas and when to use them

A tweet about Idaho Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal kicked off scrutiny about the use of commas.
(Copper Canyon Press)

“Idaho Poet Laureate, Paisley Rekdal, will be the featured keynote speaker for the ACES 2020 annual conference.”

The tweet from the American Copy Editors Society drew immediate scrutiny.

“Is this how we’re supposed to punctuate this sort of sentence now?” asked a comma-savvy observer.

The folks at the copy-editing professional association did what professional copy editors always do when busted making a mistake. They ’fessed up.

“That’s a goof,” the ACES rep admitted. “And it’s a good reminder that even editors need editors.”

For an error like the one in that tweet, it takes a pro to bust a pro. Many wouldn’t realize that there should be no commas around the name Paisley Rekdal because the rules governing commas in this situation aren’t well understood.

Commas are used in pairs to set off supplemental information like a state after a city, “Bradenton, Fla., is near Sarasota,” or an added thought, like “to say the least,” or even added adjectives, as in “The roses, fragrant and beautiful, grew in the yard.”

One type of supplemental information is called an appositive. It’s when you restate a noun you just mentioned using a different noun or noun phrase. “The senator, a great man, cast the deciding vote.” Sometimes you do that to add specificity: “His wife, a business owner, disagrees.” Names can work that way, too: “His wife, Claire, disagrees.”

Now, with the idea of supplemental information in mind, compare these two passages.

“A hardcover volume fell off the shelf and onto the floor. I picked up the book, ‘Moby Dick,’ and set it aside.”

“The class was assigned to read the book ‘Moby Dick.’”

Instinctively, you may sense that both are punctuated correctly. They are. But when you try to puzzle out why, you see that this can be subtle stuff.

In the first example, we already know which book is “the” book — the one that fell on the floor. The book’s title is supplemental.

In the second example, the title is critical to understanding which book is meant by “the book,” so the title is not supplemental information.

Here’s another way to look at it: When you have “the book” immediately before “Moby Dick,” only one of them can be the object of the verb and the other is just added information. For “We read the book ‘Moby Dick,’” you could instead just say, “We read ‘Moby Dick.’” Those two little words, “the book,” are just extra, working almost like an adjective.

In this case, you wouldn’t set the title off in commas because it’s the intended object of the verb. It’s core to the sentence.

Our other example doesn’t work the same way. It’s a safe bet that the writer’s main point was “I picked up the book” and that the title of the book was supplemental. In that case, the title “Moby Dick” would be set off with commas because it’s extra information: I picked up the book, “Moby Dick,” and set it aside.

This is a fuzzy concept, I know. But this litmus test should help: try deleting one noun phrase, then the other — “the book” and “Moby Dick — from the sentence. Note which can be deleted without hurting the meaning of the sentence.

Then, if the nonessential noun phrase comes after the other one, set it off with commas: the book, “Moby Dick.” If it comes before, think of it as an adjective: the book “Moby Dick.”

In our original sentence, if you take out the poet’s name you get “Idaho poet laureate will be the featured speaker.” Clearly, that sentence is missing something because “Idaho poet laureate” works more like an adjective than a noun.

If you leave in the name but take out the noun phrase in front of it, you get “Paisley Rekdal will be the featured speaker.” That’s a sound sentence. So you shouldn’t set off the poet’s name in commas because that name is core to the meaning and structure of the sentence.

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