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Author Topic: A unified approach to the proper use of punctuation in English – Part II  (Read 7637 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: September 24, 2010, 11:41:56 PM »

As with all the alphabet-based languages, English is primarily dependent on word choices and their combinations for the successful delivery of ideas. In written form, however, English would be so clunky and insufferably confusing without the benefit of punctuation. Whether short or long, in fact, what makes sentences and expositions in English eminently readable and understandable is their proper use of punctuation marks—whether the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, parenthesis, or period—to clarify meaning and set off boundaries between structural units of the sentence.

But precisely when do we use each of these punctuation marks in our sentences and expositions? And in particular, which of the punctuation marks do we use to set off a parenthetical—by definition, any inserted amplifying or explanatory word, phrase, or sentence—from a main sentence?

In “The parenthesis and its uses,” a six-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, I attempted to come up with a unified answer to all of these questions. I did so in the course of explaining the various grammatical and structural considerations involved in punctuating parentheticals. I posted the first part of those wide-ranging discussions in last week’s edition of the Forum; this time I am posting the second of the three-part series (September 25, 2010).

The parenthesis and its uses: the appositive phrase

We will now discuss the appositive phrase found in the following sentence that I presented for evaluation towards the end of Part I: “Cleopatra, the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later, greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.” The appositive phrase here is, of course, the parenthetical “the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later.” It’s an added state¬ment that gives context and texture to this vague, bare-bones sentence: “Cleopatra greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.”

On closer scrutiny, we will find that the appositive phrase is actually a simplified form of the nonrestrictive relative clause in this sentence: “Cleopatra, who was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later, greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.” It is, in fact, originally the relative clause “who was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later” but with both the relative pronoun “who” and the linking verb “was” taken out.

That grammatical streamlining process produces a modifier in noun form—“the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later”—that is in apposition or equivalent to the noun form it modifies—“Cleopatra.” Indeed, appositive phrases are a compact and concise way of describing people, places, and things or of qualifying ideas within the same sentence. They allow us to provide more details about a subject without having to start another sentence—a process that sometimes undesirably slows down the pace of an unfolding exposition or narrative.

The use of appositive phrases, we now will probably recall, is also one of the most efficient ways of combining sentences. It allows a related statement from another sentence to be folded into the sen¬tence that precedes it. The sentence that we are evaluating now, for instance, has combined these two sentences: “Cleopatra greatly in¬fluenced the affairs of the Roman Empire. She was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later.” By making the state¬ment in the second sentence an appo¬sitive in the first, we get a sentence that’s richer in texture and more interest¬ing to read: “Cleo¬patra, the le¬gendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later, greatly in¬fluenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.”

Such constructions also have the added virtue of allowing us to develop the basic statement of a sentence unimpeded. Assume that we have already written this basic statement: “Cleopatra greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.” If we use the appositive phrase “the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later” to form a new sentence after it, that new sentence would often become a stumbling block to developing the basic statement. Indeed, with a powerful statement like “She was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later” getting in the way, it won’t be an easy task to go back to the thread of our basic statement and develop it. In contrast, folding that powerful statement into an appositive phrase in the first sentence neatly sidesteps the potential continuity problem while making that first sentence much more readable and interesting.

The appositive phrase we have discussed above is of the non¬restrictive type, which means that it isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence even if it adds important additional information to it. Nonrestrictive appositive phrases are parentheticals that, like non¬restrictive relative clauses, need a pair of enclosing commas to set them off from the sentence.

But some appositive phrases are of the restrictive type and they don’t need those commas. An example of the restrictive appositive phrase is the phrase “Pliny the Elder” in this sentence: “The Roman scholar and encyclopedist Pliny the Elder distinguished himself as a cavalry commander in Germany and later served as a well-respected procurator in Gaul, Africa, and Spain.”

We must keep in mind, though, that restrictive appositive phrases rarely get much longer than the three-word example—“Pliny the Elder”—given above. This is because long, extended phrases generally don’t function well as restrictive appositives; without the enclosing commas that set off nonrestrictive appositive phrases from a sentence, extended phrases used as restrictive appositives tend to make sentences convoluted and difficult to grasp.

Try reading this sentence, for instance: “The 1965 film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines is about a wacky cross-channel air race that dangled £10,000 in prize money to bring flyers from all over the world.” The restrictive appositive phrase here is the seven-word movie title “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,” which, if it weren’t italicized or placed within quotes in the sentence, would have made that sentence so difficult to grasp.     

Indeed, what we will encounter more often is the restrictive appositive, which identifies a person, place, or thing more closely by name in just, say, one to three words, like “Regina” and “Jennifer” in this sentence: “My brother-in-law’s sister Regina gave birth to a boy as their sister Jennifer was driving her to the hospital.”

Here, the appositives “Regina” and “Jennifer” aren’t set off by commas because both are restrictive—they can’t be omitted from the sentence without affecting its basic meaning. They serve to make it clear that the speaker’s brother-in-law has at least two sisters—the one who gave birth and the other who drove her to the hospital. Without those restrictive appositives, in fact, the sentence becomes incoherent: “My brother-in-law’s sister gave birth to a boy as their sister was driving her to the hospital.”

But this question will obviously linger in our minds: What if we supply the enclosing commas and make those two appositives nonrestrictive instead, as in this construction: “My brother-in-law’s sister, Regina, gave birth to a boy as their sister, Jennifer, was driving her to the hospital”? The answer, as I will now explain, is a categorical “no.”

In its nonrestrictive form (with the enclosing commas), the appositive “Regina” implies that the speaker’s brother-in-law has only one sister whose name happens to be Regina. However, the other nonrestrictive appositive, “Jennifer,” also implies that both the speaker’s brother-in-law and his sister Regina have only one sister whose name happens to be Jennifer.

This, of course, contradicts the earlier implication that the speaker’s brother-in-law has only one sister, Regina. Indeed, he has at least two sisters, Regina and Jennifer. This is why it isn’t advisable to put what should logically be a restrictive appositive into a nonrestrictive form, for these two forms are neither grammatically and semantically equivalent nor interchangeable.

Even if there’s no possibility of an identity mix-up, the restrictive appositive form is often preferable to the nonrestrictive form if the appositive and the word it identifies are so closely related, as in this example: “Her husband Alfredo is trying his luck as an overseas foreign worker.” Here, it can be argued that commas should set off “Alfredo” because this name isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence, thus making it a nonrestrictive appositive. However, the nouns “her husband” and “Alfredo” are so closely related that they can logically be considered a single noun phrase, “her husband Alfredo.” The commas then become superfluous, making “Alfredo” a restrictive appositive.   

We will take up the parenthesis by dashes and the parenthesis by parentheses next week in the third and last part of this series.

Next Week: The parenthesis by dashes and the parenthesis by parentheses

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, January 25 and February 2, 2008, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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