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There's an old play on words that goes like so:

Grammar: The difference between helping your uncle Jack off a horse, and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

I've been told that it should instead be:

Grammar: The difference between helping your uncle, Jack, off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

Is either of these correct? Why?

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it would not be a joke about punctuation if the only difference was capitalisation –  mplungjan May 15 '13 at 8:25
    
Both are correct. The first is better because "uncle Jack" is a compound noun. –  Andrew Leach May 15 '13 at 8:48
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@Andrew The second one means you have exactly one uncle, however. The first one does not. And of course the second one ruins the joke. (Not that it was funny or accurate in the first place.) –  RegDwigнt May 15 '13 at 8:48
    
@AndrewLeach I read it as apposition, not a compound noun like player piano or table tennis. –  Bradd Szonye May 15 '13 at 8:50
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Incidentally, you can use uncles with other names without otherwise changing the wording and still have it be a joke if you accept that to 'off a horse' could mean to kill one, but that only works in some dialects. –  user867 May 16 '13 at 5:47
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt May 15 '13 at 8:50

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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Uncle and Jack are two nouns in apposition.

In a non-restrictive appositive, the second element parenthetically modifies the first without changing its scope and it is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence. In a restrictive appositive, the second element limits or clarifies the foregoing one in some crucial way. For example in the phrase "my friend Alice", "Alice" specifies to which friend the speaker is referring and is therefore restrictive.

Restrictive appositives like “my friend Alice” and “my uncle Jack” are not set off with commas.

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Thanks, very handy to know the correct term. Cheers. –  Will Hughes May 16 '13 at 8:55
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From my understanding, in the first part of the second example, you have to use the extra commas around Jack because it is providing additional information about who your uncle is.

i.e. "My uncle, whose name is Jack, is very smart."

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It's not just additional information, it's specifying which uncle it is. That makes it a restrictive appositive, which doesn't use a comma. –  Bradd Szonye May 15 '13 at 8:47
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