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.