Unnecessary commas

Write Away reader Bill Friar got in touch to air one of his professional writing bugbears:

‘I would dearly love to see an item on the creeping trend of putting commas between people’s names and their titles or descriptive terms. For example: “Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke outside Downing Street….” or “action star, Tom Cruise, went on a rampage…”

‘I don’t remember seeing this kind of thing very often even five years ago. Now it’s everywhere. The madness must stop.’

Thanks, Bill. You make an excellent point – those double commas hugging Tom Cruise and David Cameron shouldn’t be there.

But why is this punctuation wrong?


It’s wrong because Tom and David, in the above examples, are restrictive appositives.

Say what?

An appositive is a word, phrase or clause that renames, explains or identifies another noun in the same sentence. They can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. For example:

Emphasis Training, the business-writing trainers, are based in Brighton.

You’ll notice that the appositive above is tucked away between commas. This is because ‘the business-writing trainers’ is a nonrestrictive appositive: if you remove it from the sentence you’d still know who the subject (Emphasis) is, and it would still make sense.

However, some appositives are restrictive – they can’t be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning or leaving people confused. Restrictive appositives should not have commas round them.

In Bill’s examples, the names can’t be removed because it would leave the sentences incomplete, as they don’t start with a determiner (eg the, a, our etc):

Prime Minister spoke outside Downing Street…

Action star went on a rampage…

And even if they did, we might still need more information to properly identify the subjects in question, and not leave the reader guessing. For all we know, Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina was speaking outside Downing Street about Bruce Willis’s recent rampage.

Now that’s how rumours get started.

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