Let’s meditate on commas — tiny, tadpole swooshes of black that can make or break our most gorgeous sentences. Put commas in all the right places, and nobody will notice or congratulate you. Put commas in the wrong places, or neglect to put them in the right places, and nasty grammar wenches like me will point their fingers at you and fall into fits of despair over the laggardly state of American copyediting today.
Today I’d like to pontificate on commas and appositives. If you’re not familiar with that term, an appositive is a word or phrase that follows a noun or pronoun and further describes it.
A quick example: “Heloise, phone sex operator extraordinaire, donned her fluffy bunny slippers and flannel nightgown in preparation for the evening’s raunchy conversations.”
Heloise = phone sex operator. Phone sex operator is the appositive and is thus set off in between a pair of commas. The commas signify that the phrase isn’t necessary to the sentence. It would be less enlightening but would still make technical sense to say, “Heloise donned her fluffy bunny slippers and flannel nightgown in preparation for the evening’s raunchy conversations.”
Appositives are always set off — on both sides — with commas. Too often I see the second comma forgotten, i.e.:
“Wild Oats, my 100,000 word contemporary horse racing romance novel features excitement, action and equines.”
The phrase “my 100,000 word contemporary horse racing romance novel” is the appositive and requires commas on both sides.
The exception to this rule is when the object and the appositive are so close in meaning that together they make a complete phrase. This type of appositive limits the meaning of a noun or pronoun preceding it. Usually this occurs when a proper name or one word description is the appositive and both are quite short. Examples:
“My sister Jane doesn’t like my horse racing romance just because I named one of the mares after her.”
“Romance author Whinny Roan has written many books containing steeplechases and polo matches.”
(And, arguably, “My 100,000 word contemporary horse racing romance novel Wild Oats features excitement, action and equines.”)
Oddly enough, if the order of appositive and object is swapped in these sentences, the commas become necessary, because the appositive is no longer restrictive, i.e.
“Jane, my sister, doesn’t like my horse racing romance because I named one of the mares after her.” (Jane, bless her horse-hating heart, is all sorts of things besides my sister.)
“Whinny Roan, romance author, has written many books containing steeplechases and polo matches.” (Ditto — Ms. Roan is all sorts of things besides a romance author.)
Some appositives occur at the first or the last of the sentence and only require one comma, but if they were in the middle they would still need two, i.e.
“A frequent caller to the phone sex line, Toopy asked Heloise what she was wearing.”
“Heloise told him she had on a see-through pink negligee and thong panties, her favorite pretend outfit.”
Two other, less frequent methods can be used to punctuate special nonrestrictive appositives — colons and dashes. However, I’ll not go into those at this time since there are other issues involved. For now, I’ll be a happier grammar wench if more folks consistently remember their second appositive comma.