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The Rise of the Restrictive Comma

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The Major League home-run champion, Giancarlo Stanton. A comma is needed because he’s the only ML home-run champion. (Image courtesy mlb.com)

This message came over the transom the other day:

Hi Ben! I often refer friends or colleagues to an article you wrote about “The Most Comma Mistakes.” I sometimes feel I get on my high horse about when commas before/after names should or shouldn’t be used, but I’m stumped this time. I hope you don’t mind me asking you a question to get your opinion.

I’m transcribing an interview, a conversation between two people. I’ve come across this:

Q: Does anyone else live with you?
A: At the moment there’s Greg my husband our son Ben who is 20 and Tom and Sue our foster children.

I’ve taken out the commas in the sentence for the purpose of sending it to you for your opinion. A friend and I have differing views, and I can’t seem to find an example in your article that relates to this type of scenario.

I responded with one question. If any copy editors are reading this, they will have guessed the question. If you’re not a copy editor and the correct question has occurred to you, then you could be a copy editor!

And the question is….

Is Ben the speaker’s only son? The answer turned out to be yes, and thus the punctuation should be:

“At the moment, there’s Greg, my husband; our son, Ben, who is 20; and Tom and Sue, our foster children.”

(I separated the items in the series with semicolons because you do that when there’s punctuation within one or more of the items.)

And if Ben had a brother or brothers, the relevant part of the sentence would read, “… our son Ben, who is 20;…”

(By the way, if you are a super-duper copy editor, ready to work at The New Yorker or The Chronicle of Higher Education, you would have asked a second question: Is Greg the speaker’s husband? On the off chance he is a boarder or a Shih Tzu, the punctuation would have been, “At the moment there’s Greg; my husband; our son, Ben, who is 20; and Tom and Sue, our foster children.”)

The comma before Ben in the only-son scenario is referred to as “nonrestrictive,” or “descriptive.” It’s the same as the comma in the phrases “my best friend, Paul”; “the vice president, Mike Pence”; or “the Major League home-run champ, Giancarlo Stanton.” The first part of the phrase fully identifies the unique person you’re talking about; the name merely adds additional information.

In the no-comma version, the phrase is “restrictive” or “defining.” In a multiple-son scenario, when we read “our son,” we don’t know which one is being referred to; we need the name to find out. This is the same idea as in the comma-less “my friend Paul” and titles, both real (“Senator Al Franken”) and false (“Miami outfielder Giancarlo Stanton”).

It’s the difference between “the American author Melville” and “the author of Moby-Dick, Melville.”

It’s striking that the question should have come to me at a moment when I was musing about this very issue. A few days earlier, a Facebook friend, Scott, had posted: “Excited that my son, Jason, is moving to California for a new job.” The problem is that Scott has three sons, and I sent him a private message correcting his mistake. That’s not something I normally do, or approve of; my excuse is that he’s an accomplished writer and, if he didn’t know the restrictive/nonrestrictive comma rule, should.

Except maybe it wasn’t a mistake after all. In informal writing, I see a comma showing up in restrictive situations more and more — in contrast to the general trend of less punctuation. And I’m starting to feel there’s a certain logic to it. My Facebook friend was sort of saying, “This particular son of mine that I’m talking about, Jason.” And I often read people’s references to, for example, “my friend, Jim.” Of course they don’t mean to say they’re misanthropes with only one pal; what they mean, and effectively communicate, is “this friend I have in mind.…” In these cases, leaving out the comma would seem a little bit fussy and, well, copy-editor-ish.

This exception seems to pop up only or mainly when phrases start with a possessive pronoun, like my or his, but not in titles or in phrases that start with the. Thus I definitely don’t approve of (but have seen) punctuation such as:

  • “Minnesota Senator, Al Franken spoke today.”
  • “Miami outfielder, Giancarlo Stanton hit another home run.”
  • “The cable news commentator, Rachel Maddow has gotten higher ratings recently.”

Or, speaking of Facebook:

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 9.59.03 PM

An odd thing is, I have the impression that commas are more and more often being omitted in nonrestrictive situations. A tennis partner emailed the other day, for example, “I’ve persuaded my husband Larry to play if we need him.” The writer is not polygamous, but the lack of punctuation seemed natural and right. Putting the comma before and after the name would feel oddly formal and stiff.

In any case, I think I owe an apology to my friend, Scott.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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