Saturday, March 19, 2011
Using a comma with names and titles
Most people learn that names and titles (of books, magazines, etc.) should be automatically surrounded by commas, but in fact that's not quite true. In fact, it depends on the circumstances, and having a comma vs. no comma can drastically change the meaning of a sentence.
This is a rule that is best discussed through examples, so here goes. Consider the following sentence:
With Commas: Last night, James and his friend, Peter, went to see a movie.
The commas around the word Peter tell us that James has one friend, and that the friend is named Peter.
Now let's look at the sentence without commas:
No Commas: Last night, James and his friend Peter went to see a movie.
This sentence means that James has more than one friend, and that he went to the movies last night with the friend named Peter.
One more example:
With Commas: Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food, has caused many people to examine closely the ingredients of the foods they eat.
The commas indicate that Michael Pollan wrote one book, called In Defense of Food. Since Michael Pollan has written more than one book, this sentence is factually incorrect - all because of the commas. To make this into a factually correct statement, we need to remove the commas.
No Commas: Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food has caused many people to examine closely the ingredients of the foods they eat. This version means that Michael Pollan has written multiple books, one of which is titled In Defense of Food