The “Only” Comma, pt. 1
A little while ago, one of my coworkers came to me with a conundrum. She had come across a sentence like “Ryan founded the company with his brother Scott” in something she was editing, and she couldn’t figure out if “brother” should be followed by a comma. She’d already spent quite a bit of time trying to answer the question, but she was coming up empty-handed.
The problem? She didn’t know how many brothers Ryan had.
If you’re a little baffled by the relationship between commas and how many brothers someone has, you’ve probably never heard of restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives. An appositive is a word or phrase that follows another and modifies it or provides additional information. In this case, the name “Scott” is an appositive for “brother”; it tells you more about the brother’s identity.
Sometimes an appositive provides information that you need in order to understand the sentence, but sometimes it just provides information that’s helpful but not strictly necessary. The Chicago Manual of Style gives these two examples in section 5.23 (the appositives are bolded):
Robert Burns, the poet, wrote many songs about women named Mary.
The poet Robert Burns wrote many songs about women named Mary.
In the first sentence, “the poet” simply provides extra information about Robert Burns, and it could be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. But in the second, “Robert Burns” is necessary. If you cut it out, you wouldn’t know who “the poet” referred to. The former kind of appositive is often called nonrestrictive, while the latter is called restrictive. The second appositive restricts the reference of “the poet” to Robert Burns—that is, it specifies which poet we’re talking about. The first one doesn’t do that, so it’s called nonrestrictive.
The general rule, as it’s presented in The Chicago Manual of Style and elsewhere, is that if there’s more than one thing that the noun could refer to, then the appositive should be restrictive. That is, the appositive needs to specify which of the possible things we’re talking about. If there’s only one thing to which the appositive might refer, then it’s nonrestrictive.
For example, there’s been more than one poet in the history of the earth, so we need a restrictive appositive to tell us that the one in question is Robert Burns. Therefore, going back to my coworker’s problem, if Ryan has more than one brother, then his brother’s name should be restrictive to tell us which of his several brothers we’re talking about, but if he has only one brother, then it should be a nonrestrictive appositive (because there’s only one person that “his brother” could refer to, so the name is just extra information). For this reason, in his book Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer calls the comma before a nonrestrictive appositive the “only” comma. That is, a comma before “Scott” would tell you that he’s Ryan’s only brother. (Though if “Scott” appears in the middle of a sentence, as in “Ryan and his brother, Scott, founded a company”, then you would need commas on both sides of the appositive to set it off.)
The problem is that this forces editors to waste time doing genealogy work when we really should just be editing. My coworker had already spent who knows how long trying to figure out how many brothers Ryan had, but she couldn’t find anything definitive. So should she put in a comma or not?
I gave her a controversial opinion: I would leave the comma out, because it simply doesn’t matter how many brothers Ryan has. If it were relevant, why wouldn’t the writer have made it more explicit, as in “Ryan founded the company with his only brother, Scott”?
I’m not sure what my coworker ended up doing, but she didn’t seem happy with my heretical opinion on commas. Afterwards, I took to Twitter to voice my opinion that worrying about these commas is a waste of time. The ensuing discussion prompted a friend and fellow editor, Iva Cheung, to make the following cartoon, which she dedicated to me:
(Follow the link to see the mouseover text and bonus.)
It may indeed sound ridiculous, but my coworker is far from the only editor or writer to have grappled with this problem. In a New Yorker piece on the magazine’s famously assiduous fact-checking, John McPhee writes about a similar dilemma. In a book draft, he had written, “Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware.” But was that right? He writes, “Should there be commas around Margaret or no commas around Margaret? The presence or absence of commas would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one. The commas—there or missing there—were not just commas; they were facts.”
But as Jan Freeman, a former copyeditor, asked in a column for the Boston Globe, “Were they important facts?” She continues, “How much time should you spend finding the answer—commas or no commas—to a question nobody’s asking?”
That is, is any reader asking how many daughters William Penn had or how many brothers Ryan had? Or, to be more specific, is anyone thinking, “I wonder if the number of brothers Ryan has is exactly equal to one or is some unspecified number greater than one”? And even if they are, are they expecting that information to be communicated via a comma or the lack thereof? I suspected that most people who aren’t editors aren’t reading as much into those commas as we think we’re putting into them, so I turned to Facebook to ask my friends and family members. The results were pretty surprising.
I provided the following sentences and asked what people thought the difference was:
Frank and his brother Steve started a company.
Frank and his brother, Steve, started a company.
Some people said that you use the first sentence if the reader doesn’t know Steve and the second one if they do. Some people said that the latter was always correct and that the former is incorrect or at least more casual. But someone else said that the first sentence looked correct and that the second looked overpunctuated. Another person said that the second sentence gives more emphasis to Frank’s brother. Someone else said that the second implied that the name of Frank’s brother was being provided for the first time and possibly that it’s his only brother, while the first implied that we already know the name of Frank’s brother. But someone else said that she’d use commas if she went into business with one of her brothers, but she’d use no commas if she went into business with her one and only husband. A couple of people said that they thought the issue had to do with whether or not the information in the appositive was needed as a qualifier—that is, whether the sentence makes sense without it. Someone else thought that you don’t need commas if the appositive is short but that you do if it’s longer. Another commenter said that the rule probably varied from one style guide to another. But a few people said they’d read no difference between the two, and one friend responded simply with this gif:
Out of more than two dozen respondents, only a few answered with the editorially sanctioned explanation: that the first implies that Frank has multiple brothers, while the second implies that he has only one. One person posted this comment: “If a writer wants to convey that Frank has one brother or more, this is an awful way of sneaking in that information. If the information is irrelevant, then I think most readers will not notice the presence or absence of a comma, or conclude anything on that basis, and that’s just fine.”
I think that there are two connected issues here: what the comma means and whether it’s important to communicate that an appositive is the only thing in its class or one of multiple things in its class. And both of them are essentially questions of pragmatics.
Most people think of meaning as something that is simply inherent in words (or punctuation marks) themselves. Put in a comma, and the sentence means one thing. Leave it out, and it means something else. But meaning is a lot messier than this. It depends a lot on what the speaker or writer intends and on how the listener or reader receives it.
In other words, there are really three aspects to meaning: the basic meaning of the utterance itself, known as the locution; the intent of the writer or speaker, known as the illocution; and the way in which the listener or reader interprets the message, known as the perlocution. That is, meaning isn’t found only in the utterance itself; it’s found in the entire exchange between writer and reader.
As I explained in a previous post, sometimes there’s a mismatch between the intended meaning and the form of the utterance itself. For example, if I ask, “Do you know what time it is?”, I’m not literally just checking to see if you have knowledge of the time. I’m asking you to tell me the time, but I’m doing it in a slightly indirect way, because sometimes that’s more polite—maybe I don’t know if you have a watch or phone handy, so I don’t want to presume. In this case, we could say that the illocution (my intent) is “Tell me the time”, even though the locution itself is literally just asking if you know the time, not asking you to tell me the time. Even though my utterance has the form of a yes-or-no question, you’d probably only answer “Yes, I know what time it is” if you were trying to be a smart alec. But people are usually pretty good at reading each other’s intent, so the perlocution—the message you receive—is “Jonathon wants me to tell him the time.”
The comma example is supposedly straightforward. If the writer or editor intends for a comma to indicate that Ryan has only one brother, and if it’s an established convention that that comma indicates that the thing that comes after it is the only thing that the preceding noun could refer to, and if the reader gleans from that comma that Ryan has only one brother, then everything works just as it’s supposed to. But if, for example, the writer intends to communicate that someone has only one spouse but they leave out the comma, then sometimes smart-alecky readers or editors ignore the writer’s obvious intent and insist on an incorrect reading based on the absence of the comma. That is, they ignore the obvious illocution and deliberately misread the text based on a convention that may not be shared by everyone. They’re essentially pretending that meaning comes only from the locution and not from the writer’s intent.
For instance, I remember one time in my basic copyediting course in college when my professor pointed out a book dedication that read something like “To my wife Mary”. She said that the lack of a comma clearly means that the author is a polygamist. I think I was the only one in the class who didn’t laugh at the joke. I just thought it was stupid, because obviously we know that the author isn’t a polygamist. First off, polygamy isn’t legal in the US, so it’s a pretty safe assumption that the author has only one wife. Second, if he had really meant to dedicate the book to one of his multiple wives, he probably would have written something like “To my third wife, Mary”. Pretending to misunderstand someone based on a rule that most readers don’t even know just makes you look like a jerk.
And, judging from the responses I got on Facebook, it appears that most readers are indeed unfamiliar with the rule. Many of them don’t know what the comma is supposed to mean or even that it’s supposed to mean something. Whether the comma has no inherent meaning or has an unclear meaning, there’s a problem with the locution itself. The “only” comma simply isn’t an established convention for most readers.
But there’s a problem with the illocution too, and here’s where the other question of pragmatics comes in to play. Conversation—even if it’s just the sort of one-way conversation that happens between a writer and a hypothetical reader—is generally guided by what linguists call the cooperative principle. And part of this principle is the idea that our contribution to the conversation will be relevant and will be communicated in an understandable manner.
As one of my commenters said, “If a writer wants to convey that Frank has one brother or more, this is an awful way of sneaking in that information.” So we end up with two pragmatic problems: editors are inserting irrelevant information into the text, but readers don’t even pick up on that information because they’re unaware of the convention or don’t anticipate what the editor is trying to communicate. Even when they try to guess the editor’s intent (because it’s almost always the editor putting in or taking out the comma, not the writer), they often guess wrong, because it’s not obvious why someone would be trying to sneak in information like “Ryan has only one brother” in this manner. In effect, the two problems cancel out, and all we’ve done is waste time and possibly annoy our writers and waste their time as well.
And because so few of our readers understand the purpose of the “only” comma, I think it falls firmly into what John McIntyre calls “dog-whistle editing“, which he defines as “attention to distinctions of usage”—or, in this case, punctuation—“that only other copy editors can hear.”
And, as Jan Freeman showed in her Boston Globe column, there’s evidence that this rule is a relatively recent invention. No wonder readers don’t know what the “only” comma means—it’s a convention that editors just made up. And, for the record, I’m not saying that the whole restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction is bunk, but I do think that the “only” comma is the result of an overly literal interpretation of that distinction. (But I’ll save the exploration of the rule’s origins for a future post.)
For now, I think that the solution, as I told my coworker, is to just stop worrying about it. It almost never matters whether someone is someone else’s only brother or daughter or friend or whether a book is someone’s only book, and it’s certainly not worth the time we spend trying to track down that information. Editing is fundamentally about helping the writer communicate with the reader, and I don’t think this rule serves that purpose. Let’s put the dog whistle away and worry about things that actually matter.