Comma misuse is nothing to take lightly. It can lead to a train wreck like this:

Example: Mark Twain's book, Tom Sawyer, is a delight.

Because of the commas, that sentence states that Twain wrote only one book. In fact, he wrote more than two dozen of them.


Why is this sentence a trainwreck? What is the correct placement of commas to un-train-wreck it?

How about this?

Mark Twain's second book, Tom Sawyer, is a delight.

  • The 'train wreck' is ambiguous. The context of the sentence could easily clarify, if necessary, that Mark Twain wrote more than one book.
    – Dan
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 18:02
  • The opinions as to whether there should be commas above are all over the map. To some it's clearly a parenthetical, and since (they believe that) parentheticals must be set aside using commas, the commas are manditory. Others either don't view it as parenthetical or are not so anal about the use of commas.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 18:24
  • It's not the best example. There is a difference, however, between my brother, Jacob and my brother Jacob (at least in the absence of other context). At ELL, see Should two nouns always be separated by a comma?
    – choster
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 18:36
  • As I noted in my answer below, the original source actually has "Tom Sawyer" italicized (essentially; it shows as non-italicized because the entire sentence is italicized), which helps to clarify the intended meaning. Your copy of that sentence here omits that important detail.
    – Nick Jones
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 20:28

1 Answer 1


The source would seem to suggest that the non-train-wreck version of that sentence would be:

Mark Twain's book Tom Sawyer is a delight.

I.e., simply remove the commas, since the sentence is specifically talking about the delightful nature of Tom Sawyer, among Mark Twain's many books, rather than Mark Twain's one-and-only book, as is implied when commas are used.

  • A further ambiguity of the version with the commas, Nick Jones, is that Tom Sawyer as set off by commas could be a vocative (like Nick Jones in the present sentence). And do not underestimate the disambiguating value of the italics in your non–train-wreck version. Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 18:28
  • Yes, I had noted that the source had "Tom Sawyer" non-italicized in an otherwise italicized sentence, which was why my non-train-wreck version italicized it. I wasn't meaning to slip in an additional disambiguation of my own creation.
    – Nick Jones
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 18:44

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