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!


One More Time…

What do we do with “…my son Scott…?” Comma or not?
This is the “essential/nonessential” dilemma, the hardest concept in all of punctuation. I would suggest that you read the entire chapter in my book on this. It is Chapter 4. The rule is very difficult to condense into a few sentences. When I explain it, it is about 30 slides in a presentation.
Here is a brief summary of the rule: It goes to whether the appositive is needed to DEFINE the word it is renaming. Would communication be lost if the appositive were removed?
…my friend Bill…
…my husband, Bill…
In the first one, the assumption is that I have many friends. I am using the name “Bill” to define which friend I am talking about. It is “essential.” A pair of commas would mean I could take it out. So we do not want commas.
In the second one, I have just one husband. Giving his name is “extra.” He is already defined in the word “husband.” His name is “nonessential” to DEFINE him. The commas say the name could be taken out.
When it is “…my son Scott…,” the problem is that you may not know how many sons. When you don’t know, use no commas.
A further problem with this concept is that people use “essential/nonessential” incorrectly. It applies ONLY to appositives, participles, and adjective clauses. There is no such thing as an adverb that is “nonessential” to the meaning of the sentence.
There is much more to this explanation, but this is enough for now.

Happy punctuating!


Which is…

“Which is/are” begins an adjective clause. If the clause is necessary to define the word it modifies and could not be removed without losing communication, then there is no comma before it. If the clause contains information which is nice to know but does not really define the word it modifies and is not really necessary to the meaning, there is a comma.

…The house which is next to mine is very large.
…The dog which is pictured here is a rescue dog

…Maria’s house, which is next to mine, is very large.
…My dog, which is pictured here, is a rescue dog.

Happy punctuating!