When deciding what should be set off by commas in a sentence, do the words “essential” and “nonessential” mean grammatically nonessential/essential or nonessential/essential to the meaning of the sentence?

For instance, take this sentence: “He was the smartest and most ambitious man at his firm.”

Is it a matter of subjectivity as to whether “and most ambitious” should be set off in commas? Clearly, the sentence would work fine without it. In that sense, it is nonessential.

But the writer may decide that it is as essential to the meaning of the sentence as the information about the man being the smartest individual at his firm. Is it, therefore, the writer's choice as to whether or not to set it off with commas?

Or, since it is grammatically extraneous, should it be set off in commas?

  • Commas represent intonation difference. That sentence, with the commas, would be pronounced differently. Exactly what that difference means is not covered by "essential". It means that a choice has been made by the speaker as to the intonation, and to the extent the intonation varies from the norm, there is a message about the content. It's up to the listener to figure out what that message is, in context. Sorry, but that's a fact. Some people turn out to be better than others at this. That's a fact, too. Jan 22 '15 at 20:55
  • Is the snark free of charge, and is there even a reason for it? Given your credentials, you are likely talking over my head; I am using terms that are very common in journalism style guides. If you are interested you can read the AP style guide on comma usage.
    – Nick
    Jan 22 '15 at 21:08
  • The point is that commas are not determined by vague ideas like "essential". Everything is essential, or nothing is essential, or take your pick for assigning essences. Punctuation either marks useless material (like apostrophes) or it represents something about how the sentence is said. Usually this is intonation. That's where the reasons stop. If you wanna believe it's essentiality, go ahead. But don't expect it to help. If you're not a native English speaker and you want guidance, don't use commas unless you're sure there's an intonation difference you want to highlight. Jan 22 '15 at 21:15
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    And the AP style guide is no help, either. It's just something to help bad writers who never paid attention to the language. Jan 22 '15 at 21:16
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    You actually answered my question, I believe.
    – Nick
    Jan 22 '15 at 21:18

The latter -- that is, nonessential/essential to the meaning. This is clearest for the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses. Restrictive relative clauses change the reference of a noun phrase by narrowing the class of things denoted, while nonrestrictives do not change the reference of a noun phrase.

There is a nice example of the semantic distinction in The Art of Thinking by Arnauld and others (aka the Port Royal Logic), where "the stars visible" (nonessential) is compared to "the visible stars". The former can be affected by daylight, clouds, a bright full moon, but not the reference of "the visible stars".

I don't know that this semantic difference between essential and nonessential always correctly predicts the corresponding grammatical difference, I don't really know, but I think that this is what is meant by the terms.

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