Rated R

“Use commas to bracket nonrestrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence’s meaning.

  • King and Lucille, his customized black Gibsons have electrified audiences all over the world.
  • King and Lucille, his customized black Gibsons, have electrified audiences all over the world.”

-Gerry O’Connor, Professor of English, Suffolk County Community College, “11 Essential Rules of Grammar”

Well, I’m not sure if The Beale Street Blues Boy thinks of all the black ES-355’s he’s ever used to shoot lightning bolts as one collective “Lucille”.

But that’s not the point.  Restrictive phrases and the right way to bracket them are one of those things that most of us know and practice instinctively.  But they’re also one of those things worth pausing and looking at for a few seconds to better understand what we’re doing on the page.

Mr. O’Connor gives this example to demonstrate the opposite:

  • “The cats, with six toes, are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway’s house.
  • The cats with six toes are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway’s house.”

 

This is not quite as obvious a wrong/right binary as the first one.  It sounds OK with the commas.  But the point comes across–bracketing with commas declares a detail less essential than it may otherwise be.

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