My Pet Peeve: Missing Commas after Appositives

I don’t know how theological this post looks, but if Martin Luther was right (“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen”), it’s actually quite theological.

A growing number of writers and/or editors, even those producing academic works, apparently do not know that a comma is necessary both before and after an appositive—a phrase that explains the preceding word or phrase (in bold below):

Correct: John, a professional theologian, has no idea what he is talking about. (BTW, I have no particular “John” in mind.)

Incorrect: John, a professional theologian has no idea what he is talking about. (I have no particular “John” in mind.

I am seeing this error now in virtually everything I read. What’s going on?

(This grammatical error has replaced the comma splice as my pet peeve. The comma splice is the misuse of a comma to connect two independent clauses that ought to be separated by a period or semi-colon, connected by a conjunction, or converted into one independent and one dependent clause.)

9 Responses to “My Pet Peeve: Missing Commas after Appositives”

  1. Leland Vickers says:

    I continue to be thankful for a few good teachers in the late 1950s and early 1960s who drilled these lessons into my head well enough that it simply “looks wrong” when I see misplaced or missing commas. One of our sons was fortunate enough to have one teacher (that I can remember) who did the same. By the late 1980s it was quickly disappearing. The young people whose writing I see today mostly have no clue.

  2. MJG says:

    I’m with you! When our children were in school, I was constantly amazed at how many communications from the school, even from teachers, had glaring grammar and punctuation errors.

  3. Chris says:

    Mike,

    You have an open invitation to call out any and all punctuation errors you find in a book I’ve edited. I’m pretty sure I catch most missing commas for appositives. But, I am also pretty sure that I’ve never edited a “perfect” book. If anyone has, I’d like to meet them.

    Also, in defense of “the young people today,” some of the “cleanest” manuscripts I’ve received have come from youngish folk, and some of the “messiest” have come from older folk. (I’ll withhold names.) I don’t think grammar and punctuation is necessarily a generational problem.

  4. Mike S says:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve recently been seeing a lot of that in many books lately and I was wondering if I had it wrong all this time. I’ve noticed them especially from UK scholars, but I’m not sure if that’s just a coincidence…

  5. MJG says:

    Chris,

    Ouch! I apparently touched a raw nerve. Sorry! I certainly did not have any of my favorite editors in view. And I don’t mean to sound either personally or generationally pompous, much less perfect. Furthermore, while I agree that individuals from any and all generations may have good or poor mechanics, I still think that grammar and punctuation are not as well taught (or learned) now as they were a generation or two ago. (I say this having raised three children, two of whom majored in English, and being married to a public-school teacher who has been in the system for 30-plus years.)

    My point is not the possibility of perfection but the current pattern of comma-deficient appositives. It makes for more difficult, and hence less pleasant, reading IMHO.

    PS Feel free to correct any and all of my mechanical errors, too, whether you are being paid to do so or not!

  6. Chris says:

    Mike,

    I was not at all offended, especially not on a personal level. Sorry I came across that way. I suppose I wanted to defend my generation a bit, but I only meant to do so in a playful sort of way, not in an offended way. I guess I have something to learn about writing in a more playful tone. I wonder if there are mechanical tricks for that!

    You are absolutely right that grammar and punctuation are not taught as much or as well (and this from the son of a high school English teacher!). For those who want to make writing a part of their profession, lack of teaching is no excuse—and a sufficient amount of teaching is no reason to rest on one’s laurels, I might add. It is on the writer to learn, practice, and hone proper mechanics. Good on you for calling attention to an area in which many need to take better care.

    Peace,
    Chris

  7. MJG says:

    Thanks, Chris.

    You make an excellent point earlier, that is, some “senior scholars” are poor and/or sloppy writers, especially when it comes to mechanics. I’ll also refrain from mentioning names!

  8. Libby says:

    Thanks for the comma splice explanation! That’s the clearest I’ve heard it explained yet (to me, I should say).

    I learned most of my complex English grammar in French class, so I definitely agree that the teaching of grammar is neglected. I think some of this has to do with the fact that it is not tested (at least, the finer points are not) on standardized tests, and so has gotten swept under the rug with so much else (including recess).

  9. MJG says:

    Mom’s/my wife’s freshman English class (fall 1973) mandated failure for any paper with a comma splice!

    The end of grammar teaching and the end of recess simultaneously; now there’s an Ed.D. thesis waiting to be written!

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