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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 essential element, 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 DeNiro. Delete the comma fencing off Robert DeNiro. It mistakenly tells the reader that the actor’s name is nonessential—but the sentence makes little sense without
DeNiro’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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Correct the following as needed. Answers are below.
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 DeNiro, showed great potential in his early film, The Wedding Party.
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Here is another installment from the "Grandiloquent Dictionary," a collection of some of the most obscure and rare words in the English language.
quoin: an external angle of a wall or building
rouleau: a cylinder of coins rolled in paper
solivagant: wandering all alone
triturate: to crush into a fine powder
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 husband because 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 DeNiro 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)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.