or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Negative

I don’t know what the deal is these days. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for the language, but sometimes I feel as if every other thing I write is OMG TYPO END OF TEH WORLD!!!!!1!!!!! And typos do bother me, but does anyone else care? Does it really matter? Is it even worth writing about?

Anyway, here’s another kind of mistake, and some didacticism to go along with it, so even if the error is minuscule and irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, someone out there might learn something.


You may recall from school (or you may not) that an appositive is a noun phrase which modifies an adjacent noun phrase in some way. There are two kinds of appositives: restrictive and non-restrictive. A non-restrictive appositive is one that doesn't materially affect the meaning: someone's name, for instance. It is always set off by commas: "My wife, Judith, is visiting her family in Waukegan" contains the appositive "Judith", modifying the phrase "my wife", and this is non-restrictive because the wife's name is not crucial to the understanding of the sentence: the speaker presumably can have only one wife. A restrictive appositive, on the other hand, adds crucial information, and is never set off by commas: "The apostle Paul stopped by a fish-and-chip shop on the way to Damascus" specifies which apostle we are discussing (because there were twelve).

This can be subtle, particularly in speech: "My brother, Bill, is on furlough" indicates that the speaker has only one brother (the appositive is non-restrictive--the brother's name isn't really relevant to the understanding of the sentence), while "My brother Bill is on furlough" means that the speaker has more than one brother, and so is adding more information to clarify meaning; the various other brothers could be anywhere else, even Waukegan.

It can be even subtler: construction matters, too. "Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is in Beijing today" is the exact equivalent of "The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, is in Beijing today," but they are punctuated differently, because the appositive has a different function in each case: in the second instance, you do not require the proper name, because the definite article "the" indicates that there's only one, but lacking this article in the first sentence, you require the name to complete the title, and since this is restrictive--since you need both parts--there will be no commas. (People learning the language often have trouble with articles, but no English native would ever write "Canadian prime minister is in Beijing today" unless she were writing a news headline, and then she'd omit the verb.)

I know this is prescriptive grammar, but I don't care: it's a good rule which contributes to the language, and careful writers will ensure they haven't violated it.

Now, here’s a sentence from a recent Pajiba story about an Alien prequel:

As producer of the prequel, Scott had originally tapped commercial director, Carl Erik Rinsch, to tackle the sequel, a turn that we wrote about in May.

It’s the classic courtroom case of Restrictive v. Non-restrictive. As I have just said, or at least alluded to and am now flat-out saying, an appositive without an article takes no commas, and an appositive with an article requires the commas as well. And therefore the article’s author could have written “...Scott had originally tapped commercial director Carl Erik Rinsch to...”, or he could have written “...Scott had originally tapped a commercial director, Carl Erik Rinsch, to....” The thing he could not correctly do is the thing he did.

But if you’ve read much of Dustin Rowles, author of that article and publisher of the website, you’ll figure that if he ever reads this, he’ll call me a pussy and make fun of my dick or something. Whatever. I’m right and he’s wrong. I may not know jack about movies, but I know what an appositive looks like.


Anonymous OmegaMom said...

Oh, not nit-picky at all. These drive me nuts, especially because it seems as if setting off names with commas has become the norm: "Music teacher, Joe Blow, will feature the chorus singing the Te Deum".

Tuesday, August 04, 2009 2:38:00 PM  
Anonymous toronto condos said...

Oh, typos annoy me so much too. However, I do set off names with commas very often. I realize I shouldn't do it, but it looks better. To me, at least.

Best regards, Elli.

Sunday, August 16, 2009 9:36:00 PM  

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