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Using Commas with Appositives

Over the 10+ years of writing this business writing blog, I’ve been consistent about virtually all my style, punctuation, and grammar choices. But there’s one comma rule I’ve flip-flopped on:

my husband Michael

my husband, Michael,

I have just one husband. His name is Michael. In a sentence should I surround his name with commas–or not?

using commas with appositives

Examples from past blog posts:

“Rather than post to my blog, my husband Michael commented to me face to face.” July 29, 2005

“The same is true for my husband, Michael, who is often addressed as Mike.” October 13, 2008

My husband Michael gets copies of my email.” August 30, 2010

My husband, Michael, is planning to participate in an event on Saturday.” January 28, 2015

What’s my problem? It’s that I have waffled about which style guide to follow when it comes to the rule on commas setting off nonessential information.

These guides recommend the consistent use of commas around a husband or wife’s name when it is used in apposition:

The Chicago Manual of Style states: “A word, abbreviation, phrase, or clause that is in apposition to a noun (i.e., provides an explanatory equivalent) is normally set off by commas if it is nonrestrictive–that is, if it can be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers.”
Chicago’s example: “Ursula’s husband, Jan, is also a writer.”

The Associated Press Stylebook 2015 advises, “Set off nonessential phrases by commas.”
AP’s example: “They ate dinner with their daughter Julie and her husband, David. (Julie has only one husband. If the phrase read and her husband David, it would suggest that she had more than one husband.)”

New Oxford Style Manual suggests, “Use commas to mark off a non-defining or non-restrictive word, phrase, or clause which comments on the main clause or supplies additional information about it.”
NOSM’s example: “I met my wife, Dorothy, at a dance.”

It’s The Gregg Reference Manual, a style guide I like a lot for its flexibility, that led me in the opposite direction.

Gregg states: “A number of expressions are treated as essential simply because of a very close relationship with the preceding words. (If read aloud, the combined phrase sounds like one unit, without any intervening pause.)”
Gregg’s example: “My wife Eve has begun her own consulting business.” Gregg adds: “Strictly speaking, Eve should be set off by commas, since the name is not needed to indicate which wife. However, commas are omitted in expressions like these because they are read as a unit.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage also describes a flexible approach:

“Generally, a pair of commas (or, less frequently, parentheses or dashes) must frame an appositive unless the appositive is restrictive. . . . This is not a hard-and-fast rule, and many publications choose to ignore commas with a name as a short appositive of relationship, for two reasons. The first is stylistic: the written comma <my husband, Bob> does not reflect any audible pause in the spoken sentence <“my husband Bob”>. The second is practical: enforcing the rule would require finding out how many brothers the subject has before deciding between his brother Blair or his brother, Blair, and that can be a lot of effort for a small payoff.”

What is an Appositive?

I like the clean look of “my husband Michael.” Yet sometimes, “my husband, Michael,” seems to flow better in a sentence. And I know that many readers, followers of AP and Chicago, wonder why I am not using the commas. So I have waffled.

But since I have been married nearly 20 years to my husband, Michael, I guess I should commit. I’ll use the commas from now on.

Are you committed to those commas?

Would you like to gain skills and confidence in your use of commas and other punctuation? Take my online self-study course Punctuation for Professionals. You can check it out in a free trial.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

20 comments on “Using Commas with Appositives”

  • I am committed to those commas! I understand that those phrases tend to be spoken as a unit, but in writing, I prefer the comma. To me, it looks like something is missing without it.
    I found this very intriguing: “If the phrase read and her husband David, it would suggest that she had more than one husband.” For some reason, that logic seems backwards to me! Either way, I will continue to use the commas. 🙂

  • Since quite usually one has only one husband or one wife, why not forget the commas? This should, of course, apply only to the husband or the wife, and not any other relation or person.

  • Hi Lisa Marie,

    Regarding the logic of “her husband David” versus “her husband, David,” the no-comma example is considered restrictive, or essential. That is, we need to know which husband.

    The example with commas is nonrestrictive; it’s extra, unnecessary information.

    In cultures practicing monogamy, the comma use you prefer is always the logical choice. But “Gregg” and “Garner” see the rule as flexible.

    Applying the commas is more complicated with siblings and other relatives. I have one brother, so I should write “my brother, Ed.” If I wrote “my brother Ed,” you might assume I have more than one brother. That’s the confusion “Garner” noted.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify! I hope I did.


  • Hi Nilima,

    I agree. And I have been following your idea, but inconsistently. For the reasons I mentioned above, however, I’m going to start being consistent and use “my husband, Michael.”


  • Hi, Lynn,
    This is how I see it: if you look at what you write (say) as “NP+APPOSITIVE”, the comma makes perfect sense, as it sets off an appositive. However, if you look at the same phrase as “TITLE+NAME”, there is no need for the comma, as we wouldn’t separate a title from the person it refers to (e.g.:*Professor, Smith; my husband Michael).
    I also think that the above choice has an impact on the message. Is your focus on “my husband” (who is called Michael) or “Michael” (who is your husband)?
    I hope you find this of interest.

  • I believe it is to be left to the intent of the writer. If husband is intended to be used as a noun, a comma is needed. If husband is a descriptive, an adjective, for the person then, a comma is not needed. Switching of nouns and pro-nouns later in the same writing would suggest (to me) that the comma would be desired, as it presents both as the same person.

    Eg: US’ President Trump. vs. US’ President, Trump. If in each use within an article, you expect to call him President Trump, then no comma is needed. If you will want to interchange the pronoun for the name, then a comma is, in my humble opinion, better.

    That being said, know that, I create my own writing style and maybe my own rules of English and sentence structure. 🙂

  • I realize this is an old blog, but as a proofreader/editor for the past 25 years, I tend to stick to old-school rules as suggested by the first two examples you mentioned above. Another very important aspect of this issue is legal. While working for an attorney years ago, it was imperative to use serial and nonrestrictive commas, otherwise wills, etc. can be disputed. For example, “My estate is to be evenly split between my children, Kaylie, Alexandra and Gordon,” or between my children, Kaylie, Alexandra, and Gordon.” Without the serial comma, it could be read as half of the estate going to Kaylie and the other half being split between Alexandra and Gordon, not the estate being split exactly into thirds and distributed.

  • I have a question– in writing an essay about a family with emphasis on that family’s child, I need to make a statement about a man’s wife, identifying her by name. The man has been identified in the previous sentence :
    “…said Bob’s father, Ed. He and wife Cheryl took Bob to school…” Should there be two commas separating Cheryl or no comma– or do I need to add the word “his” to wife?

  • Hi Andrea,

    I would definitely insert the word “his” before “wife.” It’s clearer and more professional.

    You have a choice about the commas. Most style manuals recommend that you use them around “Cheryl,” and I recommend their use too. However, some style guides feel they are not necessary with a sentence that flows easily like yours.


  • I have always been confused about how to construct this when the name is possessive. For example:

    My husband David’s car…
    My husband, David’s, car…
    My husband, David’s car…

    None of them seem quite right, but I have been opting for the first when an alternate structure is not available. Anyone have any input?

  • I greatly appreciate this article knowing that there are other writers that have struggled with the same thoughts.

    I decided to go without commas for a silly reason…

    “My wife, Angela, and I had a great weekend in Napa.”

    This statement, in my opinion, isn’t clear if my wife is Angela or if Angela was a third person in a threesome.

    Since I only have one wife, I think I will stick to considering ‘my wife’ as an official title without capitalization, similar to “Queen Elizabeth and I.”

    “My wife Zaira and I.”

  • my husband, David’s car.

    Wait – what?

    Shades of the Oxford comma – “I would like to thank my parents, John Lennon and Jesus Christ.”

    This post makes me unhappy. I don’t disagree with any of it, though. I just disapprove of all possible solutions. Well, there are more urgent matters at the moment.

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