Pop quiz: Which of the following sentences is grammatically correct?
- My sister Cherise lives in Texas.
- My brother, Eric, lives in New York.
Commas or no commas? (Hint: This is totally a trick question if you don’t know my family. Or if you don’t know the weird rules about appositives.)
The answer: they are BOTH correct. Because I have one brother and five sisters.
And how about these—hyphen or no hyphen?
- She had on a pair of ripped-up jeans.
- Her jeans were all ripped up.
Also both correct. Because compound adjectives are usually hyphenated before nouns but not after.
Weird, right? English is so weird!
Why is it so weird, you ask? Well, I’m no linguist, but from what I remember of my college English classes (and the fascinating book The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that way by Bill Bryson), it has something to do with the fact that English is a Germanic language that got “French Fried” as a result of some invasion in 1066. Possibly it had to do with William the Conqueror. Or Charles Martel. And the Franks/Gauls/Angles/Saxons/Celts history, before the big 1066 invasion by the Normans. But anyway, being a Germanic language with influences from like 60 different languages (I may be exaggerating), its spelling is ridiculous and it tries to follow both Germanic and Latin sets of rules, like a poor little confused poodle with at least two masters.
Don’t quote me on any of that. I’m useless with history.
Anyway, back to the number of siblings I have affecting my comma usage.
An appositive is a word or phrase that renames a noun. When it’s necessary, it doesn’t need commas around it. When it’s extra information, it does need them. So I can write that my brother lives in New York without adding his name to clarify, because he’s the only brother I could be talking about. But I can’t just say that my sister lives in Texas. Because my sister lives in Utah. My sister lives in Idaho. Those are also true. (Actually, three of them live in Utah. I just don’t want to be misleading here.) I need to add the name for clarity, so it’s not extra information. No extra information, no extra commas.
So if you’re not sure if you should say “My friend Becky” or “My friend, Becky,” think of the commas as parentheses. They’re kind of saying “In case you didn’t know the name of my friend,” and could be taken to mean she’s the only friend I have, unless we’ve already been talking about my friend and I’m just throwing in her name to clarify. So in general, you’d want to say “My friend Becky will be there,” since you have so many friends there’s no way the reader would know which one you’re talking about otherwise. It’s essential (also called restrictive) information. On the other hand, since I only have one set of parents, I could say “My parents are coming to visit” without saying their names, so if I add them, I need the commas for my nonrestrictive appositive. “My parents, Don and Karen, are coming to visit.” So now you can address them by name. Convenient!
I’m not planning on going into great grammatical detail on this blog, just to give you a general idea for some of the issues that mess up so many of us. So if you want to learn more about appositives—nonrestrictive, restrictive, starting with appositives, etc., go study up and report back to me what you learn.
So how about those ripped-up jeans we were talking about earlier?
As you know, an adjective is a word that describes a noun. A compound adjective is made up of more than one word. Sometimes these compounds are words you can find in the dictionary, like mean-spirited or half-baked. Others are ones you throw together as you’re writing, like a less-than-desirable donut or your mostly-crazy aunt. To avoid possible misreading of these phrases, we add hyphens into compound adjectives when they’re placed before the noun. It could cause confusion to say I didn’t want to eat the less than desirable donut, though it might not for everybody. When we turn it around, though, it’s fine to say that “The donut was less than desirable for my aunt, who was mostly crazy anyway.”
This rule makes sense for me until we get into more complicated examples and exceptions. Telling you about my dirt and stain covered couch could easily be misread the first time, so I add the hyphens: my dirt-and-stain-covered couch. But when I turn it around and tell you my couch is dirt and stain covered, it doesn’t make sense without the hyphens, as it should according to the rule. It sounds like I’m saying my couch is dirt, instead of dirt-covered. In this case, honestly, the best thing to do is reword. I mean, that’s a pretty dorky-sounding sentence, my couch is dirt and stain covered. So if that’s all you’re wanting to say, change it to “My couch is covered in dirt and stains.” If there’s more you want to say about it, use the hyphenated compound adjective and say what you want to say: “I’m finally loading up my dirt-and-stain-covered couch to take it to the dump.”
So those are some of the ways you can deal with this weird English language. Stay tuned for episode 2 of English is Weird, which will deal with me, myself, and I, or possibly apostrophe usage. You just never know what crazy thing I’ll talk about next.