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Commas with Appositives

The definition of an appositive is a word or word group that defines or further identifies the noun or noun phrase preceding it.

Rule: When an appositive is essential to the meaning of the noun it belongs to, don’t use commas. When the noun preceding the appositive provides sufficient identification on its own, use commas around the appositive.

Example: Jorge Torres, our senator, was born in California.
Explanation: Our senator is an appositive of the proper noun Jorge Torres. Our senator is surrounded by commas because Jorge Torres is a precise identifier.

Example: Our pediatrician, André Wilson, was born in California.
Explanation: Our pediatrician is still a relatively precise identifier so André Wilson is not considered essential.

Example:
CEO Julie Minsky will be our featured speaker.
Explanation: Julie Minsky is necessary to help identify CEO, so no commas are used.

Example: Julie Minsky, CEO, will be our featured speaker.
Explanation: Julie Minsky is a precise identifier so the appositive is surrounded by commas.

Example: The girl who received a scholarship is my sister.
Explanation: The girl by itself is not sufficient information.

Example: My sister, who received a scholarship, will attend Harvard.
Explanation: My sister is a relatively precise identifier.

Example: My friend Harvey is an animal lover.
Explanation: My friend is not a precise identifier because one may have numerous friends.

Example:
Harvey, my friend, loves animals.
Explanation: Harvey is a precise identifier.

Pop Quiz
Add commas if needed.
1. Ella my little sister will escort you to your seat.
2. My little sister Ella will escort you to your seat. Hint: You have two younger sisters.

 
Pop Quiz Answers:

1. Ella, my little sister, will escort you to your seat.
2. My little sister Ella will escort you to your seat. CORRECT. No commas if you have two (or more) younger sisters.

Posted on Sunday, September 2, 2007, at 7:11 pm


30 Comments

30 Responses to “Commas with Appositives”

  1. Ed Hirsch says:

    Question about comma placement in the following sentence:

    “He paused and in the stillness of the moment his countenance glowed brightly.”

    What do you think of:

    “He paused and, in the stillness of the moment, his countenance glowed brightly”?

    Thank you very much!

    • Jane says:

      I would include the commas since the phrase in the stillness of the moment interrupts the sentence flow and is non-essential, but adds more information to the meaning of the sentence.

      • Lauren says:

        You acutally need the comma after “and,” becuase it is a coordinating conjunction and connecting two independant clauses. Then since “in the stillness of the moment” is two introductory prepositional phrases there would be a comma after “moment,” as well.

        • Jane says:

          The comma may be omitted if the independent clauses are short. Therefore, we may write either: He paused and his countenance glowed brightly. OR He paused, and his countenance glowed brightly. Since the nonessential prepositional phrase in the stillness of the moment needs to be set off by commas, it is cleaner to write and easier to read He paused and, in the stillness of the moment, his countenance glowed brightly than writing He paused, and, in the stillness of the moment, his countenance glowed brightly.

  2. Kaja says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you. If I were to write “Brett lives in Denver with his wife Leena and three sons.” should I use commas around ‘Leena’? I had always thought that, since Leena is Brett’s only wife, there would be no comma. If I read the rule above correctly however, then there should be commas. Thank you for clarifying.

    • Jane says:

      Unless Brett is a polygamist, the term his wife is a precise identifier. Since Leena is not essential to the meaning of his wife, use commas around the appositive.

      Brett lives in Denver with his wife, Leena, and three sons.

      • Pama says:

        Hello,

        First of all, I would like to thank you for this wonderful explanation. I have a question:

        “Brett lives in Denver with his wife, Leena, and three sons.”

        If so then this means Brett lives with: his wife, Leena, and three sons (a total household of 6 people).

        Am I correct?

        Kaja did point out that Leena is Brett’s wife. Shouldn’t it be no comma after wife?

        Grammar’s complicated!

        Cheers =D

        • Jane says:

          That’s a good observation, Pama. Your comment demonstrates how it’s possible to follow all the rules perfectly yet the exact meaning of the sentence is still unclear. Rule 11 in the “Commas” section of Grammarbook.com states, “If something or someone is sufficiently identified, the description following it is considered nonessential and should be surrounded by commas.” Since Brett only has one wife, the word “Leena” is nonessential to the meaning of the word “wife.” Further, as Rule 1 states, “To avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more.” In theory, this sentence could be interpreted exactly as you did, with the series of three being his wife, Leena, and three sons. Therefore, depending on whether Brett’s wife is named Leena or whether Leena is some other member of the household, this sentence needs restructuring in order to be clear. Here are three possibilities (you can probably construct more):
          1. Brett lives in Denver with his three sons and his wife, Leena.
          2. Brett lives in Denver with his wife, three sons, and his cousin Leena.
          3. Brett lives in Denver with his wife, Delores; three sons; and his cousin Leena. (Rule 4 of Semicolons: Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.)

  3. Shadam says:

    Do I need commas in the following,

    Shadam will be married in her mother Sarah’s gold wedding band.

    The scarf, given to Shadam by her father, Richard, will also be used.

    • Jane says:

      Let’s take your two sentences separately. The rule states, “When an appositive is essential to the meaning of the noun it belongs to, don’t use commas. When the noun preceding the appositive provides sufficient identification on its own, use commas around the appositive.” If Shadam only refers to one person as mother (i.e., no step mother, adoptive mother, etc.), the word Sarah is not essential to her mother, therefore use commas around the appositive. However, complicating this sentence is the possessive noun followed by an appositive, such that some may ask should the sentence be written as, “Shadam will be married in her mother’s, Sarah’s, gold wedding band”? The best guidance I can find on this is to add ‘s only to the appositive, as you have done, and also drop the comma that would normally follow the appositive phrase.

      Shadam will be married in her mother, Sarah’s gold wedding band. (Although I doubt you would get much argument if you wrote, Shadam will be married in her mother, Sarah’s, gold wedding band.)
      Or, you could remove any doubts by rewriting the sentence as, Shadam will be married in the gold wedding band of her mother, Sarah.

      In the second sentence, the phrase given to Shadam by her father is essential to the word scarf since it identifies that particular scarf. Therefore no comma is required there; however, if Shadam only has one father, the word Richard is not essential to her father. A comma is used around the appositive.

      The scarf given to Shadam by her father, Richard, will also be used.

  4. Kelly says:

    Are the commas correct in the following sentences?

    Charles went to town with his best friend, Mike.

    Aided by their friend, Janice, the two friends built a treehouse.

    • Jane says:

      Our Rule 11 of Commas says, “If something or someone is sufficiently identified, the description following it is considered nonessential and should be surrounded by commas.” In your first sentence, the term best friend is a precise identifier and the name Mike is nonessential, therefore you are correct to use a comma. In your second example, however, the word friend is not a precise identifier because one may have numerous friends. The name Janice is essential to the meaning of the word friend, since she is not their only friend. The name should not be surrounded by commas, however our Rule 10 of Commas states, “Use a comma after phrases of more than three words that begin a sentence. If the phrase has fewer than three words, the comma is optional.” A comma is needed after the beginning phrase.

      Charles went to town with his best friend, Mike.
      Aided by their friend Janice, the two friends built a treehouse.

  5. Attica says:

    I think the sentence with my little sister can be both with and without the commas. If I have two little sisters, and one of them is called Ella, then the comma shouldn’t be there before the name. However, if have only one sister, then the comma should be there. Don’t you think so?

    • Jane says:

      In the first pop quiz question, the appositive is my little sister. The noun preceding the appositive, Ella, provides sufficient identification on its own. Therefore, commas are used no matter how many sisters you have. In the second quiz question, my little sister would be sufficient if you only had one little sister. You could use commas in that case. No commas are required if you have more than one little sister. Therefore, the second quiz question could have two acceptable answers. Thank you for pointing this out. We will make the change to this grammar tip.

  6. Mohammed says:

    Thank you very much for all information.There is a question in my mind I hope you help me answering it.
    It is about how could we decide whether this is a subject only or appositive I am not talking about appositive with commas because it is clear enough especially in TOEFL.

  7. Anwar says:

    Can you define this is singular or plural sentence? I’m so confused because of it.

    “A lady, along with her friends, … having dinner with the Mayor.”

    Thank a lot for your comment.

    • Jane says:

      When the subject is separated from the verb by words such as along with, as well as, besides, or not, ignore these expressions when determining whether to use a singular or plural verb.

      A lady, along with her friends, is having dinner with the mayor. (Note that “mayor” is not capitalized.)

  8. Alexandra says:

    Do you have an example of a kid friendly examples for commas with appositives?

    Thank You in advance,
    Alexandra

    • Jane says:

      Examples:
      Mrs. Torres, my teacher, was at the music program.
      My best friend, Sam, played the clarinet.
      His youngest sister, who played the piano, is only in first grade.
      My dog, a toy fox terrier, is well-behaved.

  9. Meep says:

    What about state appositives?

  10. stephen says:

    When are appositives separated by commas? Only when they’re nonessential?

  11. Laura says:

    Is it proper to set off an appositive describing a question with commas, too?

    Example:

    Where do you see yourself in five years?, the first question on the application, made her panic. She didn’t know.

    • Although some writers would follow the question mark with a comma in your sentence, most editors would drop the comma and go with just the question mark. It would be advisable to rewrite the sentence to avoid this quandary:

      The first question on the application was, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It made her panic. She didn’t know.

  12. Becky says:

    Is the comma usage after the word “and” correct in this situation?

    This enhancement allows Department Managers to automatically approve new item requisition requests within Department requisitions: this includes the use of separate menu requests and, when approved, the addition of auto numbering new item request when added to the Item Master.

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