Writing for Business

May 29 2012   12:08PM GMT

Comma confusion

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

typing Which is correct?a. The iconic singer Madonna tweeted for the very first time in March 2012.

b. The iconic singer, Madonna, tweeted for the very first time in March 2012.

Answer: a
When Madonna is set off by commas (and goodness knows, it seems like just about anything might set her off), the sentence means that there is only one iconic singer, and her name is Madonna. The thing about tweeting like a Twitter virgin in March 2012? True — Madonna joined Twitter in March to promote her new album. I suppose there’s a reason they call her the material girl, not the digital girl.

Another example:

a. The storage expert, Arun Taneja, recommends a very careful reading of cloud storage provider contracts before signing.
b. The storage expert Arun Taneja recommends a very careful reading of cloud storage provider contracts before signing.

Here’s how Ben Yagoda explains this type of comma error in his article in the New York Times, The Most Comma Mistakes:

I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.

Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None are correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:

I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.

If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.

You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and before “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.

The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name> Continue reading


This is one of my favorite types of comma errors because it’s the one behind fun sentences like “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Whoopi Goldberg.” What do you need to fix that sentence? The Oxford comma. Love it or hate it, sometimes you’ve just got to use it to make yourself understood.

Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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