Comma Karma

Commas are the bane of many writers, but they’re more useful than you might realize.

Time was, everyone was taught the niceties of comma usage and the way proper usage helps readers understand the author’s intentions. That time seems to have passed, though, so I’m stepping in.

What’s the difference between the meanings of these two phrases?

Kim’s husband Steve

Kim’s husband, Steve

I hear you, I really do. “There’s no difference! There’s just a comma in one, but not the other!” And THAT, kids, is important. That comma makes the difference between Kim having one husband or more than one. That comma. It’s not unimportant.

First, we have “Kim’s husband Steve” without a comma. That means this is Steve, not Tony or Bruce. (Doesn’t matter how many more than one, either. If she has two husbands, we’d still not use a comma in that position. If she has two hundred, the same deal applies.) This works with any noun, like “her son Robert.” That means we’re talking about Robert, not Shawn or Randy or Scott.

Then, we have “Kim’s husband, Steve.” She has one husband. His name is Steve. The name is less important than the relationship, so it’s set off with a comma. (When a noun phrase is set off like this, we call it an appositive.) We don’t need to know that it’s THIS husband and not THAT husband; there’s only the one, and his name happens to be Steve. (This is her husband, Steve. That guy over there? That’s her boyfriend Bruce. See? Now we know she has one husband because there’s a comma before “Steve,” and we know she has more than one boyfriend because there’s no comma setting “Bruce” off from “boyfriend.” I bet she has a couple of lawyers lined up, too.)

Proper use of punctuation not only makes your writing look better. It also provides information to your readers. You don’t have to explain that she has one husband and more than one boyfriend. Let the commas do the talking.

3 thoughts on “Comma Karma

  1. Ha! Applications immediately show up. Recent conversation involved discussion of bra shopping, and I was talking about “the last time I went bra shopping pre-pregnancy”. Adding a comma would have implied I had somehow made it through pregnancy and nursing without needing to get new bras. Anyone who’s been pregnant and has given birth knows how unlikely THAT is. Instead, I was talking about the last time I shopped for bras before, rather than after, I got pregnant.

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  2. This of course is the rule. But this sometimes falls apart for me when, for example, you don’t know how many sons or daughters a parent has (this issue will come up often in news gathering). In that case, you have to assume. Not including the comma is the safest bet. But what about dogs or cats or boy-/girlfriends? A person might only have one or the other at that moment but probably has more than one in his or her lifetime. More often than not, it’s a judgement call.

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