The Idea of “Essential”

As I have stated on other occasions, there is widespread confusion or perhaps lack of understanding of what the terms “essential” and “nonessential” mean in punctuation.

I would say again: Putting a pair of commas around an element does not always mean that you can take it out of the sentence and have the sentence make sense. In other words, not all pairs of commas surround a “nonessential” element. You cannot always remove an element that is surrounded by commas and have the sentence make sense.


…He lived in Springfield, Ohio, and not in Springfield, Illinois, during that period of time.
…She called on May 24, 2015, and not on May 24, 2016, with the news.

Removing the elements that are surrounded by commas in these setnences would leave the sentences without meaning. However, that does not mean that we take the commas out. The commas are there in each sentence because there is a rule that the state be surrounded by commas after the city and that the year be surrounded by commas after the full date.

Consider this scenario:

…I want you to have 40 percent, Mr. Roberts, and you to have 25 percent, Mr. Williams.

Again, if we remove the names because they are surrounded by commas and are therefore “nonessential,” the sentence loses clarity. We surround direct address with a pair of commas without regard to whether that name is vital to the meaning of the sentence or not.

In summary, not all pairs of commas are placed/not placed because of the concept of essential/nonessential. In fact, many pairs of commas are placed around elements that are absolutely necessary to the meaning of the sentence but have commas because there is a rule for those commas.

I hope this helps.

Happy punctuating!


What to Do When Punctuation Is Said

When someone says the word for the punctuation mark, the decision about whether to put the word into the transcript or just the punctuation mark itself is really an editorial decision on the part of the reporter.

A person says: “It is the, cap, First, cap, Amendment discussion that is important.”
A person is reading from a document and says: “On the 15th of the month,” comma, “the surgery was performed.” [This sentence could be punctuated with a pair of dashes to set off the word “comma.”]

Whether to put in the word that was said or just the punctuation it stands for is an editorial decision on the part of the reporter. Maybe the question is “How verbatim do you think you need to be?”

There is justification in English for doing it either way.

Happy punctuating!