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In these two examples, what types of reasons (assuming the writing is generally about both characters) make a particular style a better choice? Or is this just an arbitrary choice that doesn't really matter?

  • Hillary, Bill's wife, called this morning...

  • Bill's wife, Hillary, called this morning...

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Since this is a question about style, you'll get more relevant answers at writers.SE –  Mitch Jun 13 '11 at 22:39
    
@Mitch: Thanks. Jez already answered my question very nicely, and it also passed Alenanno's grammar check. ;-) –  Randolf Richardson Jun 13 '11 at 23:10

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

This is all about emphasis. In English, you often place what you want to emphasize as soon as possible in the sentence. In your first example, the name 'Hillary' is being emphasized, and the fact that she is Bill's wife is merely an aside. In your second example, 'Bill's wife' is being emphasized, and the fact that she is called Hillary is merely an aside. In both cases, the idea is that one could remove the aside and the sentence would still work; the section of the sentence between the commas is just some useful extra information for the reader.

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+1; The note about removing the aside really helps clarify the difference. –  MrHen Jun 13 '11 at 23:03
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+1 ... Since I removed my answer, I'll write it here... Adding to Jez answer, both of your sentences are grammatically correct. –  Alenanno Jun 13 '11 at 23:05
    
+1, but also what needs to be said is that the second example can work without comas and the emphasis change (the first example comes from that sentence through inversion of order, if I am not hopelessly mistaken). –  Unreason Jun 13 '11 at 23:10

I'd like to expand to Jez's answer a bit. A writer would normally start with whichever description of this woman first came to his mind, and he'd add whatever came up next in apposition. I don't think any more than this could be subject to a hard rule; I believe emphasis is involved in some cases, but not all.

Bill, John, and Fiddlebumps are in a reading club. At the moment they are discussing the articles in the latest issue of Playboy. Bill's wife, Hillary, walks in. But Bill asks her to leave, because they are in deep concentration.

The writer thinks of the fact that she is Bill's wife first, probably because this connection is most relevant to what's going to happen. She doesn't do anything significant; her name might as well be left out, unless she returns later.

Bill, John, and Fiddlebumps are in a reading club. They are discussing the latest issue of Men's Health. Hillary, Bill's wife, walks in. Knowing that Bill likes to brag, she asks, "Darling, how many push-ups did you do this morning? My, I think I saw you do two whole push-ups!"

The writer thinks of her name first, probably because he wants to introduce her as a character.

However, these are just examples; there could be various reasons why one description or another comes to the writer's mind first. In fact, the order could be reversed in both examples without too much change in meaning. It depends on context.

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+1 for that great information. Thank you for taking the time to include it. –  Randolf Richardson Jun 14 '11 at 3:33

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