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A Comma Here, A Comma There

 

 

 

Let’s talk about commas, shall we? Not all uses of commas, mind you, because that would take way more time than either of us has and way more space than one wee blog post. Let’s talk about one use only today. It’s one that confuses lots of the writers I work with – and lots of writers whose books I read.

 

My brother, Frank is a good driver.

My brother Frank is a good driver.

My brother, Frank, is a good driver.

Look at those three sentences. Each one uses the same words. The only variable is the comma. Let’s examine each one in turn.

Number one is wrong. Period. If you do that, stop it. Just stop. You’ve left things unfinished. You began something with that comma and then dropped the ball, fumbled the hand-off, stumbled out of the blocks, whiffed your at-bat, and probably five or six other sports-related phrases I could throw out.

The second sentence shows that the particular brother you mean, Frank, out of your two or more brothers, is a good driver. You might mean that your other brother, George, is a bad driver. And maybe your third brother, Henry, is too young to drive. But Frank, that one particular brother, is a good driver.

Sentence number three indicates that your ONE brother whose name is Frank is a good driver.

If you want to think of it as an equivalency, go ahead because that’ll work, too. Your brother (your only brother) is equivalent to the name Frank, so you set that additional information off with a comma. Your one-brother-of-several Frank is NOT equivalent to the word brother, because you have other brothers as well, so you don’t set his name off with commas.

My stove, that annoying appliance I’m chained to, provides meals for my family.

In this case, the stove is the equivalent of “the annoying appliance I’m chained to,” so – you guessed it – that latter phrase is set off with commas.

 

My husband, Walter, is the love of my life.

My husband Albert is the love of my life. (My other husband, the one I’m committing bigamy with, isn’t.)

Try these.

Vinnie’s cousin Cleo thought her brother, Michael, hung the stars. (Vinnie has more than one cousin; Cleo has only one brother.)

That dog Sparkles is a huge nuisance .(Well, of course, there’s more than one dog in existence.)

My dog, Sparkles, is a huge nuisance. This time there’s only one dog.

I’ve used simple sentences in these illustrations, but the principle will remain the same, no matter how complex the sentence.

2 Responses to “A Comma Here, A Comma There”

  1. David Rodwell says:

    I am working my way through Stroud & White. I finally remembered this exercise in comma placement:

    “I didn’t say she spilled wine on the carpet.”

    This is a dandy blog!

    David Rodwell

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