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I commonly see commas used like: "The famous playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon."

It bothers me, but I'm curious to hear explanations of why this is done, and if it can be considered correct English. Is there any style manual that approves?

I would accept "The famous playwright William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon" or "William Shakespeare, the famous playwright, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon".

However, when phrased like "The famous playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon", I read the name as parenthetical. But that sentence doesn't make a lot of sense with the name removed, as "the famous playwright" looks definite, but is undefined.

It suppose it could make sense in a context where the subject is mentioned previously, something like "Once upon a time, there was a well-known dramatist. The famous playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon." In that case, the name really is parenthetical. But I've seen commas used this way without such a context, and often, I believe, in the very first sentence of a text.

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I'm upvoting this question because although I can't disagree with @Robusto's answer insofar as the presence of commas doesn't make the sentence ungrammatical, I don't like it any more than OP. Reverse the two noun phrases and I'm perfectly happy, as is OP. I want someone to explain to me why I don't like it, not tell me there's nothing wrong with it. –  FumbleFingers Jun 7 '11 at 19:05

5 Answers 5

This is just a rhetorical figure called an appositive:

appositive a noun or noun substitute placed next to (in apposition to) another noun to be described or defined by the appositive.

There is nothing wrong with it, and it is certainly grammatical.

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Thank you! That gives me more to google on. The page you link to has the example "Is your friend George going to run for office", which it suggests could have commas and which is similar to my example above; but I found another page which supports my feeling that an appositive can be considered parenthetical and that the sentence should make sense without it. Would be interesting to see a more authoritative source weigh in on this. –  Henrik N Jun 7 '11 at 18:32
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"Can be" doesn't mean "always is." Unless it always is, there can be no hard rule. Commas can signify a pause, without any added significance. They don't always of course. –  horatio Jun 7 '11 at 18:41
    
@Henrik I remember a teacher who insisted on the style "The playwright, William Shakespeare, was born...". I believe the reason is that some people might view it as a non-restrictive appositive and according to some style guides, that requires a comma, but a restrictive appositive doesn't. Wikipedia also explains apposition but I still find it rather confusing. –  aedia λ Jun 7 '11 at 18:46
    
@horatio Well, I think I would find pauses around the name strange as well, because it would then sound parenthetical :) And I'm not sure why I said "can be"; my personal feeling is that they "should be", but I'd love to see some authoritative prescriptivist source make either claim. –  Henrik N Jun 7 '11 at 18:57
    
@aedia Good point, but since there is more than one famous playwright, I'm not sure I see how anyone could argue that it is non-restrictive. –  Henrik N Jun 7 '11 at 18:57
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Okay, after a night's sleep, I realized that thanks to @Robusto's answer and the comments on it, the question can more generally be posed as "Are commas allowed around a restrictive appositive?"

Searching Google for something like "restrictive apposition|appositive commas", I see several results that state that restrictive appositives should not have commas.

E.g. The University of Wisconsin's Writer's Handbook which states

Use commas to set off non-restrictive modifiers. Do not use commas to set off restrictive modifiers.

For a more authoritative source, the Chicago Manual of Style doesn't seem publicly available online, but I found Q&As that strongly suggest that it takes the same view: this and this.

I did not find any style guide stating they're required or allowed, but I did not try hard, and I am of course biased.

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"The Elements of Style" says that "Restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas." with the example "The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place." Relative clauses and appositive clauses are not the same, but certainly related. –  Henrik N Jun 9 '11 at 17:15

No. The punctuation in the sentence "The playwright, William Shakespeare, was born" to my view is incorrect because "William Shakespeare" is a restrictive appositive. The commas suggest the "William Shakespeare" is ancillary information and that it could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence. This is not the case. Compare with "William Shakespeare, the playwright, was born."

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Much depends on context. There are circumstances in which even William Shakespeare's name would be used in a restrictive appositive. Consider: "In 1564, during a time of great strife in England, a man arrived who would achieve eternal fame and change the theater forever. The famous playwright, William Shakespeare, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon ..." –  Robusto Dec 11 '12 at 12:49

I seem to be able to see two things here: an anastrophe, and an appositive:.

The appositive can be seen by the noun (William Shakespeare) surrounded by the two commas. The appositive is recognized by these commas.

An anastrophe is a figure of speech in which a language's natural word order has been reversed. This is seen by

"The famous playrwright, William Shakespeare, ... "

instead of

"William Shakespeare, the famous playwright,...

In either cases, they are both grammatically correct.

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Thanks. I'm not sure I agree it's an anastrophe - to me, either word order is natural. I just take issue with the commas. And per my own answer, there are sources that state the commas are not grammatically/stylistically correct. But I'm very curious to hear if any style or grammar guide disagrees. –  Henrik N Jun 9 '11 at 17:12

I believe using commas in that sense is wrong, simply because a comma is a pause and there's no reason to pause before and after the name. The commas clutter the sentence and make it harder to read.

Apologies if that veers too close to personal opinion, but simplicity and directness are good rules of thumb.

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