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Clippings: For clarity’s sake, ditch the extra commas

Last month I took the practice test for the Common Core, a set of education standards that all American children will have to meet. The test was created by an outfit called the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.” I was aghast and a little dismayed when I saw that Question 17 included the writing mistake that drives me, as an editor, the most crazy. The question read:
“A student is writing a research report about the volcanic island, Surtsey, for a class assignment. Read the paragraph from a draft of the report and answer the question that follows.”
I’m certainly glad that the Addison Independent is not a morning newspaper, because I hate to think of all the copies of this edition that would be destroyed when a reader sipping his or her morning coffee spews the hot beverage all over page 4A when they read that travesty (something, I fear, we are supporting with our tax dollars).
I wasn’t always this way; I once was a young man with a pretty laissez-faire attitude about writing — almost anything goes when it came to putting ink on paper (and back then it really was ink and paper). Rules were for old fogies who didn’t have a knack for experimenting with language. But now I’m 50, I’ve learned a few things, and I think I’m entitled to have a few crotchety complaints.
I hope you, dear reader, immediately saw the error in that Smarter Balanced test question: There is no need to set off the name “Surtsey” from “volcanic island” with commas. None. In fact, it’s absolutely wrong. As everyone learns in grade school (and as I learned in 9th grade because I’m a little slow), the thoughtful writer uses commas to separate nonessential words or phrases from the rest of a sentence, but essential words and phrases are not set off by commas.
In the sentence I quoted, “Surtsey” is an appositive, a technical word used by word geeks when speaking deeply about writing and language. As a somewhat jaded journalist, I’m generally pretty suspicious of jargon and technical words because often they are red flags that the user is employing them either to obscure the truth of the situation or to obscure their own ignorance. Here though, I’m bringing up the word “appositive” to impress you with my erudition and because giving a thing a name sometimes really does allow us to get a handle on what it means and why it is useful.
An appositive is a noun or pronoun — often with modifiers — set beside another noun or pronoun to explain or identify it. The exact wording of that definition is courtesy of Purdue University, but there are lots of websites that give essentially the same definition. So an appositive — from the Latin ad (“near”) and posito (“placement”) — gives more information about some noun in a sentence. For instance, if I said, “My reporter John Flowers is the sharpest dresser I know,” then “John Flowers” would be the appositive modifying the noun “reporter.” Another example, “My boss, Angelo Lynn, is smarter than Einstein,” where “Angelo Lynn” is the appositive modifying the noun “My boss.”
OK, here’s the important part. Did you see how “John Flowers” was not set off by commas but “Angelo Lynn” was? That’s because some appositives (John Flowers) are “essential” and some (Angelo Lynn) are “non-essential.” Put another way, some appositives provide more information that is indispensible — the sentence would be incomplete or nonsensical without it — and some appositives provide more information that is nice to know but the reader wouldn’t be lost if the printer ran out of ink and the phrase was left off.
So, when I signal that John Flowers is an essential part of that sentence by not setting it off with commas I am letting the alert reader know that there is more than one reporter in our newsroom. When I indicate that Angelo Lynn is non-essential by setting him off by commas I am indicating that I have one boss and, by the way, that boss is Angelo Lynn. (Boy, that explanation could get me in trouble with both my “non-essential” boss and my wife.)
If you didn’t feel my outrage at the inappropriately punctuated sentence in the Common Core test before, I hope you feel it now. Because, obviously, when it refers to “a research report about the volcanic island, Surtsey, for a class assignment,” it is saying that Surtsey is the one volcanic island by setting Surtsey off with commas. If the testmakers had written “a research report about the volcanic island Surtsey for a class assignment” that would have told the reader that there are many volcanic islands but the student was reading about a specific one and it is called Surtsey.
In the past two years or so I’ve noticed that this incorrect use of commas with appositives has really blossomed. I get many press releases every week that set off essential appositives with commas. The younger interns and reporters that cycle through the Independent also often have the misapprehension that two more commas in a sentence must be a good thing, without really thinking about it. And I guess that’s what really drives me crazy — my job as an editor is to make language as clear and communicative as I can. But at the same time, many (most, really) people don’t parse every sentence they skim nor do they turn to their neighbor and say, “Hey, this says Surtsey is the only volcanic island out there; see, it’s set off by commas!” So am I simply blowing into the wind? What’s an extra comma or two, really … to anyone but me and my word geek friends?

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