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I would just like to clarify if in this kind of sentence, where you state the name of a person, are commas always needed to offset Anne?

His sister, Anne, was not feeling well.

Or is it acceptable to remove the commas? If yes, when?

Thank you!

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Mitch, deadrat, FumbleFingers, Avon Jul 30 '15 at 18:32

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The traditional explanation for when to use commas around Anne is as follows:

If the unidentified he in the sentence has only one sister (Anne), then the word Anne is functioning as an appositive, and you would set it off with commas:

His sister, Anne, was not feeling well.

But if the he in the sentence has two or more sisters, the word Anne is identifying which one was not feeling well and so would not be set in commas:

His sister Anne was not feeling well.

Here is a discussion of how to punctuate appositives, from Words Into Type, third edition (1974):

Appositives. Set off words in appositives by commas

[Relevant example:] He was replaced by a German leader, Odoacer, and thus a ruler from the barbaric tribes was recognized in Rome.


Restrictive appositives. A restrictive appositive is one used to distinguish its principal from other persons or things of the same name, group, or class. Such an appositive, which could not be omitted without robbing the sentence of meaning, should not be set off.

[Relevant examples:] the poet Longfellow; his brother Will; my friend Pat

So in your example, if Anne is his only sister, Anne is a regular appositive (and requires commas), but if Anne is one of his two or more sisters, Anne is a restrictive appositive (and should be left unpunctuated).

  • thanks! what if it's not known whether Anne is his only sister or not? – Sofia C Jul 24 '15 at 6:01
  • If you are writing the sentence and you don't know how many sisters he has, you might do best to finesse the issue by wording the sentence along the lines of "He has a sister named Anne, and she was not feeling well." If you are reading the sentence (and you trust the writers command of appositives), then you can use the presence or absence of commas around Anne to infer whether he has one or more than one sister. – Sven Yargs Jul 24 '15 at 6:07
  • I'm actually tasked to edit what I'm reading so I'm deciding this shouldn't have a comma after reading your explanation. Thanks! :) – Sofia C Jul 24 '15 at 6:11

If the example is direct address (hint: his sister's name is not necessarily Anne), the commas are required.

If the sentence is not direct address, whether or not the commas are required may depend on the stylistic context, among other things. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, says this: "Unless it is restrictive (see 5.50), a word...that is in apposition to a noun is usually set off by commas...." (5.49, italics mine). Then, "If the appositive has a restrictive function, it is not set off by commas...." (5.50).

The Associated Press Stylebook (2007, p. 326) takes what at first appears to be a more didactic (more prescriptive than the comparatively more descriptive Chicago Manual) approach: "A nonessential phrase must be set off by by commas. An essential phrase must not be set off by commas."

I say 'at first' because, when you examine what's intended by "essential" and "nonessential" (pp. 87-8), you find this:

These terms are used in this book instead of restrictive phrase and nonrestrictive phrase to convey the distinction between the two in a more easily remembered manner.

The underlying concept is the one that also applies to clauses:

An essential phrase is a word or group of words critical to the reader's understanding of what the author had in mind.

A nonessential phrase provides more information about something. Although the information may be helpful to the reader's comprehension, the reader would not be misled if the information were not there.

So, in the example you give, whether the appositive phrase is essential or nonessential depends on your sense (a sense sponsored by the stylistic and semantic context) of whether or not the information is essential or nonessential.



You could remove the comma in that sentence. The comma is always there, however, when rephrasing a noun or adding information that is non-essential.

More examples:

  1. Anne, his sister, was not feeling well.
  2. Anne, who jumps often, jumped too much, and her feet hurt now.
  3. Anne won the Presidential election, requiring only a majority vote.

Excerpt from GrammarBook:

Rule 11. Use commas to set off nonessential words, clauses, and phrases (see the "Who, That, Which" section in Chapter One, Rule 2b).

Nonessential words, clauses, and phrases that occur midsentence must be enclosed by commas. The closing comma is called an appositive comma. Many writers forget to add this important comma.

The Purdue OWL also has a page on appositive commas that emphasizes the difference between essential and non-essential information and the requirement of commas. Excerpt:

In some cases, the noun being explained is too general without the appositive; the information is essential to the meaning of the sentence. When this is the case, do not place commas around the appositive; just leave it alone. If the sentence would be clear and complete without the appositive, then commas are necessary; place one before and one after the appositive.

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