Names and Commas: Clarifying the Confusion

I am writing this blog for those of you who worry about punctuation as much as I do, which, admittedly, might be a small group. However, if you are indeed a member of this group, here’s what I discovered a few days back in reference to commas and names. (I apparently have been getting this wrong for years.) Of course, now I am scrutinizing those first two sentences for proper comma usage and believe I am correct in those comma choices. Whatever the case, onward to one of the most elusive uses of commas: nonrestrictive or nonessential information.

Here is the story:

When writing a sentence with a name in it, I have always placed commas around the name. For example: My brother, John, was a great pianist. However, I have learned recently that tossing in those obligatory commas depends entirely on whether or not John is my only brother. If he is, then I do use the commas because John is nonessential (meaning I don’t need to name my only brother to identify him since he is my one and only older brother.) In this case, the name “John” could be omitted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. The sentence would then read: My brother was a great pianist.

However, if John is not my only brother, then I DO NOT use the commas. In that case, what is correct to write is: My brother John was a great pianist. He is not the “one and only” so his name is essential and therefore needs to be included. This feels counterintuitive to me since setting John’s name off in commas feels as if this makes his identity more prominent (aka essential) but this is not what grammarians say. Instead, they say that the information within the commas is extra information that is not needed to convey the essential meaning of the sentence. So, when asking yourself if commas are needed, there are two ways to go about it: One is to ask, “Is John the one and only brother?” If he is, then add the commas; if not, then no commas for him. The second question is, “Would this sentence convey the essential information if John’s name were omitted? If so, then John’s name should be set in commas. Admittedly, slightly confusing. The “one and only rule” is easily for me to comprehend.

So, here are some sentences illustrating this point.

Jan’s older sister Mary Ellen was going to the store. (If Jan has more than one older sister.) This provides essential information differentiating Mary Ellen from another older sister or two, who might be named Louise and Ethel.


Jan’s older sister, Mary Ellen, was going to the story. (Use if Jan has only one older sister and her name is Mary Ellen. The “Mary Ellen” in this case only adds information but it is nonessential to the bigger sentence, which is really about the older sister going to the store.

Here is the official site and examples I read in order to clarify this information. I looked at several sites to verify these rules and they all said exactly the same thing. Alas, I have learned some vital new comma information. I am happy I won’t be making that mistake again!

Setting off nonrestrictive or nonessential information

After lists, the most important function of the comma is to set off nonrestrictive or nonessential information.

I will give the document to my brother, Tom. (The writer has only one brother. The brother’s name is nonessential and therefore set off with a comma.)

I will give the document to my brother Tom. (The writer has more than one brother. In this case, the specific brother—Tom—is essential information and should not be set off with a comma.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter has been made into several movies. (Hawthorne wrote more than one novel.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, was published anonymously in 1828. (Hawthorne had only one first novel.)

As seen in the example above, when the nonrestrictive or nonessential information is found within, rather than at the end of, the sentence, it should be set off with a pair of commas. When the nonessential information comes at the end of the sentence, only one comma is needed.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. sampatron says:

    Oh, I’m so confused! 😮

  2. Wendel Sloan says:

    You got it right, Len.

  3. Darn commas are nothing but a headache.Grr. Now I have to unlearn, too. o_O Thanks, Len.

    1. Welcome, Tess. I know. A real pain.

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