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  1. My friend, John, and I went shopping.
  2. My friend John and I went shopping.

I believe we need to wrap our friend's name in commas (first sentence example), but wouldn't that make it three people?

  • 21
    “Let’s eat, Grandma!” versus “Lets eat Grandma!” – JakeGould Nov 1 '17 at 17:23
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    If John is a dog, then it would only be two. – Emma Dash Nov 1 '17 at 17:34
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    @EmmaDash if friend, John and "I" are all dogs, then it would be zero ;) – ypercubeᵀᴹ Nov 1 '17 at 18:18
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    @Panzercrisis. Technically that last statement is very context dependent. For example: "My friend Bill came over. My boss John came over. My friend, John, and I went shopping." No one will assume 2 in that case. – Mad Physicist Nov 1 '17 at 20:18
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    My friend – John – and I went shopping. – CJ Dennis Nov 2 '17 at 6:48
46

The first example could be a use of parenthetical commas - the commas here act like parentheses (braces), so it's equivalent to

My friend (John) and I went shopping.

So there's still just you and John.

I think that most people would assume John was the friend however the commas were arranged, unless they had prior knowledge to suggest otherwise. eg

John and I waited for ages for my friend to turn up. Finally she did, and my friend, John, and I went shopping.

Here you assume there's three people, even though the commas are the same as in the initial example. Instead of parenthetical commas, we now interpret the commas as separating items on a list. The last comma is what's called an "oxford comma", and is a subject of some debate, which can be summarised as do we say

"a, b, c, d and e"

or do we say

"a, b, c, d, and e"

I believe the latter (with the additional comma) is generally preferred, as it avoids ambiguity in phrases like "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God"., in which it sounds like the speaker is the child of Ayn Rand and God, while they actually meant a list of things consisting of [the parents, Ayn Rand, God].

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    @thumbtackthief why is it wrong? Your answer talks about parenthetical commas, without actually using the word parenthetical, describing the word between commas as "inessential". – Max Williams Nov 1 '17 at 14:27
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    In fact, the source you cite agrees with me. "But if a word or phrase provides necessary information, information that significantly restricts or limits the meaning of the sentence, do not place commas around it:" – thumbtackthief Nov 1 '17 at 14:54
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    I'm generally in favor of the Oxford comma myself. However, I don't think it's quite right to say that it's generally preferred because it removes ambiguity in certain cases: it also adds ambiguity in certain cases, such as this one. Consider "My friend, John and I went shopping". That's unambiguously three people, because now John can't be parenthetical. (Well, okay, it could be two people, if you're telling a story to "My friend" about John and yourself. But that's a different kind of ambiguity.) – amalloy Nov 1 '17 at 17:45
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    Your justification for preferring the Oxford comma is weak. Oxford commas disambiguate "I thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God" but make the sentence in the question ambiguous. The whole reason that we haven't either all settled on using Oxford commas or all settled on not using them is that neither system actually works. And, essentially, everyone argues that the system they were brought up with is better. – David Richerby Nov 2 '17 at 12:36
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    Do not use comments to answer (post an answer instead), praise or rebuke (vote instead), discuss (chat instead), suggest edits (edit instead), or comment on site design or policy (post at meta instead). Use comments to ask for clarification, suggest changes, or offer short-lived information. – MetaEd Nov 3 '17 at 15:48
17

My friend John and I went shopping.

You do not need to wrap the friend's name in commas – unless that friend is your only friend. Generally when you are identifying something or someone, such as John, you do not need (and should not use) commas.

  • If the name further identifies the person or thing from an otherwise broader category (all the speakers friends) it is essential: don't separate it with commas.

  • If the name only provides a name for the person or thing, but the previous description has already homed all the way in on them or it, the identifier is inessential: go ahead and separate with commas.

The New York Times addressed this issue in 'The Most Comma Mistakes'.

The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.

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  • Couldn't you still run into the same problem using "My oldest friend, Jessie, and I went shopping."? This is still ambiguous as to whether there are 2 or 3 people going shopping. – GentlePurpleRain Nov 2 '17 at 19:02
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    @GentlePurpleRain Yes, here it would be more ambiguous and complicated, and depends on whether the speaker expects their audience to know who their oldest friend is. Perhaps only because it is weird to not say your friend's name when you do say someone else's, I would expect Jessie to be the name of the oldest friend. – Unrelated Nov 2 '17 at 19:38
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    @GentlePurpleRain You wouldn't use the commas in that sentence. As you note, it makes it confusing: the sentence is more clear without them. If you are worried that some rule of grammar mandates the commas, Chris H put it better than I could: "Rules exist to serve the clear expression of ideas, and not the other way round." – Michael Geary Nov 3 '17 at 8:01
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Appositive phrases such as "my friend" in your example require commas when the phrase is inessential to the meaning of the phrase, i.e., it can be removed without losing meaning.

For example:

My mother, Mary, took me to see the Spice Girls in concert.

'Mary' is inessential--assuming I have only one mother (not always the case I know), then "my mother" is enough to identify who I am speaking about.

In your example, however, one would assume you have multiple friends (I don't know, but you seem nice enough). So 'John' is essential to understanding your meaning. The correct punctuation is without commas, as in your second example.

My friend John and I went to the store.

If it were a necessary appositive:

My teacher, Mr. Brooks, and I went to the store (My teacher is Mr Brooks and the two of us went to the store)

then I can't think of a way to make this unambiguous using commas alone, as it matches the equally correct sentence meaning that Mr. Brooks, another person who is my teacher, and myself all went to the store.

http://data.grammarbook.com/blog/commas/commas-with-appositives/

  • Is there something incorrect or that otherwise needs improvement in my answer that warrants these downvotes? – thumbtackthief Nov 1 '17 at 17:58
  • Especially given that the answer above, which is nearly identical, is getting upvoted? – thumbtackthief Nov 1 '17 at 19:13
  • The and at the end of that list is what's crucial here. Your example is basically invalid because of that. – Mad Physicist Nov 1 '17 at 20:21
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    And either way... accepted answer is incorrect, even judging by their own cited source – thumbtackthief Nov 1 '17 at 20:31
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Pour vous: tirania.org/blog/archive/2011/Feb-17.html If you'll excuse me, I have to mail back my Master's degree in English and hang my head in shame. – thumbtackthief Nov 2 '17 at 13:29
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Rules exist to serve the clear expression of ideas, and not the other way round. If the commas introduce ambiguity then don't use them. If you don't like disobeying the rule (mentioned in some other answers) about parenthetical commas for additional information, reword the sentence or use brackets or dashes.

But it's not much of a rule anyway. You might say "my dog, Rover, likes to chase cats" according to the rule, but if you've got another dog (Rex) that doesn't, the commas become incorrect as the name is important information. A rule that depends on how many dogs you have, or similar context should be treated as a guideline at best.

1

How many people are in the sentence “My friend, John, and I went shopping”?

The answer is either two or three, depending on grammatical ambiguity.

The ambiguity arises from the conflicting grammar of lists vs. appositive phrases that end up giving the same result. Qualifying that my friend is John ends up giving identical output to making an Oxford comma list including a third person known only as 'my friend'. Without context, it is impossible to know which may have been intended.

1

When in doubt, restructure the sentence.

Not:

My friend, John, and I went shopping.

But:

I went shopping with my friend John.

If you can't tell if a sentence contains two people or three, then you can safely assume that other people also won't be sure, and may misunderstand you.

Similar things have ended up in court.

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    This may be good writing advice, but it sort of sidesteps the question without answering it. – J.R. Nov 3 '17 at 14:32
  • True, but the writers comment "we need to" makes it appear that they are not just trying to parse an existing sentence, but to create a new one. Perhaps this should be a comment rather than an answer. – Ben Aveling Nov 4 '17 at 11:37
  • I think it's fine as an answer, but perhaps it could be improved with a short paragraph that addresses what to do if the sentence couldn't be restructured for some reason. – J.R. Nov 4 '17 at 12:19
0

Have you considered the following interpretation?

"My friend" is in the vocative form, meaning the whole statement is being spoken to someone who is your friend, telling them that you and John went shopping.

In that case there are three people involved, of whom only two went shopping.

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    This interpretation would only be valid if the first comma were there but the second one were absent: My friend, John and I went shopping. – João Mendes Nov 2 '17 at 10:59

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