Last week a friend and I had some fun trying to untangle the punctuation in a complicated sentence. Here it is – see what you think:
We are happy to welcome two new members, John’s friend, Tony, and Linda’s cousin, Martha, to our group. CONFUSING
Whew. Five commas! Too complicated. And there’s a hidden problem: Anyone reading the beginning of the sentence can’t be sure how many people are being welcomed. Are we talking about just two new members – or other people as well?
We are happy to welcome two new members, John’s friend, Tony, and Linda’s cousin…
We could be talking about:
- two new members
- John’s friend
- Linda’s cousin
That’s five people instead of two.
So we have a confusing sentence. Is the confusion our fault, because we didn’t read the sentence carefully? The writer’s fault, because the sentence is clumsily written? Maybe.
Or…is it the fault of our language, which uses the same punctuation mark for appositives and lists?
(I need to explain that constructions that involve a voice drop – like “John’s friend, Tony” and “Linda’s cousin, Martha” – are called appositives. Read those phrases aloud and you’ll hear the voice change. I never used the term appositive with my students – we used the label Superman, and you can find out why if you click the link.)
Both appositives and lists work very differently – but they both use commas. Geez Louise. How are you supposed to tell what a sentence like today’s example means? You have to read it twice to figure it out.
And there’s still another knot to untangle. If you write “John’s friend, Tony,” you’re saying that poor John has only one friend. The same applies to “Linda’s cousin, Martha.” Linda has only one cousin. What if she has several cousins?
So – how to fix it?
We could diagram the sentence and drive ourselves crazy. Or (my preference) we could use common sense to simplify the sentence.
My rule of thumb is “no more than three commas per sentence.” The truth is that often I use more commas than that. But my rule-of-three helps me spot sentences that are too complicated and fix them.
Here are some possibilities:
We are happy to welcome two new members to our group: John’s friend Tony and Linda’s cousin Martha. CORRECT
This is my favorite solution. A potentially confusing sentence like today’s example really shouldn’t be split in half: “We’re happy to welcome two new members, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, to our group.”
If you want to be more informal, how about this? I love dashes – they solve many sentence problems.
We are happy to welcome two new members to our group – John’s friend Tony and Linda’s cousin Martha. CORRECT
Dashes can also come to the rescue if you really, really want to split the sentence:
We are happy to welcome two new members – John’s friend Tony and Linda’s cousin Martha – to our group. CORRECT
Not difficult, is it? And we didn’t have to call upon any grammatical terminology! You and I have been using the English language all our lives. All the sentence patterns we need are embedded in our heads. We just need to practice using them!
(Click this link to download a free handout that explains commas without grammatical jargon.)