Take My Commas—Please

Most editors are probably familiar with the rule that commas should be used to set off nonrestrictive appositives and that no commas should be used around restrictive appositives. (In Chicago 16, it’s under 6.23.) A restrictive appositive specifies which of a group of possible referents you’re talking about, and it’s thus integral to the sentence. A nonrestrictive appositive simply provides extra information about the thing you’re talking about. Thus you would write My wife, Ruth, (because I only have one wife) but My cousin Steve (because I have multiple cousins, and one is named Steve). The first tells you that my wife’s name is Ruth, and the latter tells you which of my cousins I’m talking about.

Most editors are probably also familiar with the claim that if you leave out the commas after a phrase like “my wife”, the implication is that you’re a polygamist. In one of my editing classes, we would take a few minutes at the start of each class to share bloopers with the rest of the class. One time my professor shared the dedication of a book, which read something like “To my wife Cindy”. Obviously the lack of a comma implies that he must be a polygamist! Isn’t that funny? Everyone had a good laugh.

Except me, that is. I was vaguely annoyed by this alleged blooper, which required a willful misreading of the dedication. There was no real ambiguity here—only an imagined one. If the author had actually meant to imply that he was a polygamist, he would have written something like “To my third wife, Cindy”, though of course he could still write this if he were a serial monogamist.

Usually I find this insistence on commas a little exasperating, but in one instance the other day, the commas were actually wrong. A proofreader had corrected a caption which read “his wife Arete” to “his wife, Arete,” which probably seemed like a safe change to make but which was wrong in this instance—the man referred to in the caption had three wives concurrently. I stetted the change, but it got me thinking about fact-checking and the extent to which it’s an editor’s job to split hairs.

This issue came up repeatedly during a project I worked on last year. It was a large book with a great deal of biographical information in it, and I frequently came across phrases like “Hans’s daughter Ingrid”. Did Hans have more than one daughter, or was she his only daughter? Should it be “Hans’s daughter, Ingrid,” or “Hans’s daughter Ingrid”? And how was I to know?

Pretty quickly I realized just how ridiculous the whole endeavor was. I had neither the time nor the resources to look up World War II–era German citizens in a genealogical database, and I wasn’t about to bombard the author with dozens of requests for him to track down the information either. Ultimately, it was all pretty irrelevant. It simply made no difference to the reader. I decided we were safe just leaving the commas out of such constructions.

And, honestly, I think it’s even safer to leave the commas out when referring to one’s spouse. Polygamy is such a rarity in our culture that it’s usually highlighted in the text, with wording such as “John and Janet, one of his three wives”. Assuming that “my wife Ruth” implies that I have more than one wife is a deliberate flouting of the cooperative principle of communication. This insistence on a narrow, prescribed meaning over the obvious, intended meaning is a problem with many prescriptive rules, but, once again, that’s a topic for another day.

Please note, however, that I’m not saying that anything goes or that you can punctuate however you want as long as the meaning’s clear. In cases where it’s a safe assumption that there’s just one possible referent, or when it doesn’t really matter, the commas can sometimes seem a little fussy and superfluous.