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Monday, August 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 69: Appositives with Commas

From the same badly written article about "The Dark Knight":

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

At least one comma is missing--maybe two. An appositive is essential information that describes something. The "Dark Knight" sentence is giving more information about the screenplay. It was "penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan," so you need a comma after Jonathan (you enclose the appositive around commas). Now the second potential appositive is about the family relationships. If Nolan has only one brother, his name, Jonathan, is essential information. I don't know how many brothers he has, though.

So, if he has one brother, the sentence should read:

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother, Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

If he has more than one brother:

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

9 comments:

Mahashakti Dasi said...

Wow! Thank you. You have provided a very valuable piece of information. Commas in the right places really do clarify the meaning of what it is you want to say. But it has to be pointed out, as you have done. Thanks again.

philed said...

Hello. I have two questions. You wrote: "If Nolan has only one brother, his name, Jonathan, is essential information."

Question 1: Did you mean "inessential"?

Suppose Nolan has more than one brother. Question 2: Wouldn't it be correct to use

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother, Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

when one means, "...Nolan's brother (whose name, by the way, is Jonathan)...?

In this example, even though Nolan has more than one brother, the name of Nolan's brother is inessential, or so it seems to me.

Thanks,
Ed

The Sentence Sleuth said...

Hi,Ed. I don't think the brother's name is nonessential. If he has only one brother, Jonathan, then it's helpful information to name him:
His brother, Jonathan, helped him write the screenplay.

Let's say he has three brothers, John, George and Mike. You would want to state which brother to avoid confusion:
Nolan's brother Mike likes sushi. His brother John helped him write the screenplay. His brother George is a bad speller.
I hope that answers your questions.

philed said...

Thank you, Sentence Sleuth. Concerning the case of there being only one brother, I agree that providing the name is helpful. Yet it still seems inessential, given the author's intent with the original sentence about the screenplay. Giving the name provides an extra (helpful) detail, but the detail is not necessary or not essential; hence, the name should be set off with commas. Am I misunderstanding a rule about appositives?

Thanks,
Ed

The Sentence Sleuth said...

I don't think you're misunderstanding. I agree that his name is not essential if there is only one brother.
Appositives can be tricky and confuse even the experts.
Thanks for your contribution.

clubbers said...

Dear Sleuth,

I can't tell whether you're conceding philed's initial point. Could you please clarify?

You said, "If Nolan has only one brother, his name, Jonathan, is essential information. I don't know how many brothers he has, though.

So, if he has one brother, the sentence should read:

'The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother, Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil...'"

Setting aside philed's Question 2, philed agrees with you that, in the typical case, if Chris Nolan has only one brother, then that brother's name should be set off with commas in the sentence you quote. However, his claim is that we should set off 'Jonathan' with commas *because the name is inessential to picking out the person being referred to*. All we need to pick out the right guy is 'Nolan's brother'; there is only one. It is incidental (non-essential), though perhaps helpful, to point out that the brother's name is 'Jonathan'.

You said that in this one-brother case, Jonathan's name was essential (presumably for the reader to pick out the right person), but philed is saying that Jonathan's name is essential only in the case in which Chris Nolan has more than one brother.

So, where do you stand exactly? In the one-brother case, is Jonathan's name essential or inessential? If essential, please explain why or what it is essential for.

Sorry for the long note; I'm just trying to get clear on this. Thanks!

The Sentence Sleuth said...

I think that it is useful info though not absolutely essential to the meaning.

This discussion is veering off into a very complicated topic: restrictive vs. nonrestrictive. It's quite hard to understand. I'll try to tackle it in tomorrow's post. In the meantime, you can look up those phrases in a grammar book if you have one lying around, or you can check online.
Until tomorrow!

The Sentence Sleuth said...

I have to admit I was not completely right about whether the brother's name was essential or not. I need to revise my previous comment. The correct comment is that the brother's name is not essential (although it is helpful information). It is nonrestrictive. For more on this topic, see today's post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks clubbers and philed, I had the exact same question.