Cutting Commas to Define

Just where to put commas—or whether we should put any at all—seems to be the eternal question for many writers. There are times when we have a choice, but there are also times when the meaning of what we’re saying will falter with or without them. The rule to follow our ear, in other words, is not reliable because there’s no arguing with logic.

Take this first sentence of an opening paragraph, for example: The famous psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, was born in 1896. Would you or should you set off the name Donald Winnicott with commas? The single, most important observation about commas always to keep in mind is that commas cut. They separate, that is to say, one grammatical element from another, and so whether we are to place them in a sentence will depend on how a group of words are working together logically.

The proper noun Donald Winnicott functions in our example as an appositive, and that technical term can help us think about how to punctuate it. An appositive in grammar is some element (a word, phrase, or clause) which is put next to another element in order either to describe it or to define. To describe something is to mention some characteristic of an object in order to portray it more vividly. To define something, on the other hand, is to differentiate it from others of its kind. An appositive, then, always has another element it works with. This element is called its antecedent, and so the question of whether to set off an appositive from its antecedent with commas is answered by one simple question: is the appositive merely describing or actually defining its antecedent?

Commas cut, and what they cut can be let to fall from the sentence without harming its logic. This means that the question whether to punctuate an appositive or not will depend on the meaning of the words that make up a particular sentence. If the appositive Donald Winnicott has been set off with commas in our example sentence, then that means we could remove that proper noun from the sentence and still understand what the writer intended to say: The famous psychoanalyst was born in 1896. We noted earlier that the sentence stands as the first of an opening paragraph, and so without the appositive Donald Winnicott, would we not immediately ask ourselves what famous psychoanalyst the writer means? Had this sentence been spoken to us, we would certainly have asked casually, “Who are you talking about?” Grammatically we would say that the antecedent has not been defined, and so to do that, and preclude miscomprehension, we must restore the appositive without commas: The famous psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was born in 1896.

When an element defines its antecedent like this, it is called a restrictive appositive, because the writer is restricting just what the reader can think about the antecedent. To restrict is just another way to say define; what defines is essential, and what is essential to something can never be separated from it by commas. Likewise, when an element merely describes its antecedent, it is called a nonrestrictive appositive, and the inessential information it provides must be set off with commas in order to signal to the reader that the words within commas are amplifying, but not defining, the antecedent; let them fall away if you wish: The famous psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who lived in England, was born in 1896.

We are, then, a long way from the rule many of us learned in school to put a comma where we breathe. That rule as a rule is not incorrect, but it applies to matters of rhetoric, or style, much higher and much more subtle than the environment in which logic lives. But because style depends first on making sense, the reader must know exactly what we’re thinking, and the concept of restriction and nonrestriction will help us meet that demand.


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  1. A snow day here, on which I helped my son, age 10, write an essay. The topic was a recent road trip, in a truck, to Cape Cod and back. In one day. In sub-zero weather.

    My son proposed we write, “Me and my Dad needed to drive to Cape Cod and back to retrieve furniture from my Grandmother’s house.” I encouraged him to consider a describing detail and we added the phrase “…, a 354 mile trip,…”
    after Cape Cod. I explained use of commas for a descriptive phrase.

    Five hours later, I read today’s blog and tell him, “this was a non-restrictive appositive!” He says to me, “I have no idea what you just told me.” But he senses my passion and took note.

    To be continued…which is the nature if parenting.

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