Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part III

See what you can infer from this sentence: When my three siblings and I entered the dark house, my brother, Marky, got scared. A careful reader would know instantly that the author had one brother and two sisters.

Why? Because of the commas surrounding Marky, which tell us that the brother’s name is nonessential. The commas enable the writer to say my only brother, whose name is Marky in three words.

Suppose the writer had entered the house with three brothers. In that case, my brother got scared would not tell us enough. With more than one brother involved, the sentence would have to say my brother Marky got scared—no commas. The absence of commas makes the brother’s name an essentialelement, and it is essential because without Marky we wouldn’t know which brother the writer meant.

Along the same lines: Mark Twain published his beloved book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” in 1876. The commas must go; the book’s title is essential. It is undeniable that Twain wrote more than one beloved book. Without commas the sentence would say what it means: that Twain wrote many beloved books, and Tom Sawyer is one of them. If the book’s title were nonessential, then Mark Twain published his beloved book in 1876 would not be such an inadequate sentence.

Here’s a comma gaffe many inexperienced writers make: The film features the world-famous actor, Robert De Niro. Delete the comma fencing off Robert De Niro. It mistakenly tells the reader that the actor’s name is nonessential—but the sentence makes little sense without De Niro’s name in it.

The terms wife and husband always require commas in sentences like this: My wife, Marie, enjoyed meeting your husband, Lucas. This is because we can have only one spouse at a time, so their first names are nonessential, supplementary information.

Note: The following sentence is an exception to the wife-husband rule above: Cuthbert Simms and wife Marie sailed to the Bahamas last weekend. No comma is called for because in that sentence wife is not a noun, but rather an adjective modifying Marie.

The rule for grandmother and grandfather is the opposite of the wife-husband rule. This sentence is correct without commas: My grandmother Bess thinks your grandfather Horace is a twit. Everyone has two biological grandmothers and two biological grandfathers, so the names Bess and Horace are essential information.

Punctuation proficiency is crucial to serious writing. Don’t take the humble little comma for granted.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct the following as needed.

1. Bertram’s wife Deluxa was late to the ball.
2. My only sister Julia left with husband Mike on their annual vacation.
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather, Otis, until this morning.
4. An actor, named Robert De Niro, showed great potential in his early film, The Wedding Party.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bertram’s wife, Deluxa, was late to the ball. (commas added; Deluxa is nonessential)
2. My only sister, Julia, left with husband Mike on their annual vacation. (commas added because Julia is nonessential; no comma after husbandbecause it is an adjective modifying Mike)
3. Hedley’s cousin Jaden did not meet my grandfather Otis until this morning. (no commas because Jaden and Otis are essential information)
4. An actor named Robert De Niro showed great potential in his early film The Wedding Party. (no commas because the actor’s name and the title of one of his early films are essential information)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, September 2, 2014, at 10:41 am


Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II

Here is the rule again, in case you missed it: Essential elements in a sentence should not be enclosed in commas. Nonessential elements in a sentence should be enclosed by commas.

Last time, we applied the rule to clauses. Today we’ll look at essential and nonessential phrases (a phrase is two or more related words with no subject and verb).

Let’s start with this sentence: The guy seated next to me wouldn’t stop talking. There are no commas because seated next to me is an essential phrase. It identifies which “guy” we mean. Without it we’d have only The guy wouldn’t stop talking, which doesn’t tell us much.

But consider this: Ezra Blung, the guy seated next to me, wouldn’t stop talking. Because we now know the man’s name, the guy seated next to me becomes nonessential. As the commas signify, the phrase contains supplementary information, and the sentence would have the same meaning without it.

Commas are easy for some to overlook, but an omitted or out-of-place comma can change a sentence’s meaning. Here is an example: Complete the job, as directed. The comma after job tells us that the phrase as directed is nonessential. The sentence says that you have been directed to do a job, and implies that how you do it is up to you. But what if we took out the comma: Complete the job as directed. Now as directed is essential, and the sentence is saying something more severe: Do the work, and make sure you do it the way you were told to do it.

Remember that essential and nonessential are technical terms. Some authorities prefer restrictive and nonrestrictive, perhaps to avoid the sort of confusion that may result from analyzing a sentence like this: A comma, which never ends a sentence, signals a pause.

In that example, which never ends a sentence is nonessential, and the crux of the sentence is, A comma signals a pause. That is true, but a period also signals a pause. Perhaps the key difference between commas and periods is that a comma never ends a sentence.

So how could such an essential fact be termed “nonessential” in a sentence that describes a comma? It’s because we are using grammatical terminology: nonessential refers to sentence structure only.

Information essential to human understanding is often found in phrases and clauses that are technically nonessential, as seen in the comma sentence above. But that sentence would be improved by making its less important fact nonessential: A comma, which signals a pause, never ends a sentence.

Memo to fledgling writers: If you find that you’ve disclosed an essential fact in a technically nonessential phrase or clause, you may want to write a new sentence.

 

Pop Quiz

Identify and punctuate (if needed) the italicized groups of words below. Are they clauses or phrases? Are they essential or nonessential? Answers are below.

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry.
2. His brother who is a health nut runs five miles a day.
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there.
4. Alan Lomax always fascinated by roots music first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry. (essential phrase, no punctuation)
2. His brother, who is a health nut, runs five miles a day. (nonessential clause, commas added)
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there. (essential clause, no punctuation)
4. Alan Lomax, always fascinated by roots music, first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly. (nonessential phrase, commas added)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at 1:04 pm


Essential, but Is It Important?

Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore and aft.

By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses (a clause always contains a subject and verb).

Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.

Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.

Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor nonessential, requiring commas.

Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.

So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.

 

Pop Quiz

Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.

1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 11:14 am


People vs. Persons

The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there are times when we should. “When we say persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking, or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.”

The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.

As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty. Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”

Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction “pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”

Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers “options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at 11:02 am


Media Watch

• From a review of an exhibition: “The society had in their possession a card imprinted with a 1872 photograph.” Two booby prizes in one sentence: society is singular, so make it “had in its possession,” not “their.” As for “a 1872 photograph,” is that the way you would say it? The misguided decision not to use an stems from the belief that an should only precede a vowel, and the 1 in 1872 isn’t even a letter. However, the actual rule is that an always precedes a vowel sound, which is why we say “an honor,” even though the silent h is technically a consonant.

• From a newspaper editorial: “California will join other states who have made alterations to their sentencing codes.” Make it “other states that.” A state is not a person, and who applies only to humans.

• “It was all so cliché.” What’s wrong with “It was all such a cliché”? Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. To sticklers, this sentence sounds as silly as “It was all so paper clip.”

• From a book review: “It’s impossible to predict it in advance.” Oh dear. Either change “predict” to “know” or delete “in advance.”

• “Their reticence to challenge the union is why this ruling is essential.” The writer meant “reluctance to challenge.” The two words are not synonyms; reticence means “habitual silence” or “reserve.”

• From a profile of an athlete: “His single-minded passion is one of the many qualities that has made him a star.” Make it “one of the many qualities that have made him a star.” The subject of the verb is “qualities,” not “one.” Many qualities have made him a star; his single-minded passion is one of them.

• “The inmates are trying to put distance between the men they are now with the crimes that landed them here years ago.” Make it “and the crimes.” Would you say, “The distance between my house with your house is three blocks”? The writer forgot the first half of his sentence before he finished the second half. And then he just couldn’t be bothered to proofread the mess he’d made.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Thursday, August 7, 2014, at 8:13 am