Yes, I know. The English language is constantly changing. But some changes that creep into common use are, well, obnoxious habits that set my teeth on edge. Let me explain a pet peeve about punctuation, something I’ve been fighting — unsuccessfully — for years.
Unless you are writing about Osama bin Laden, you probably can assume that when a man speaks of his wife, there is only one. The punctuation in the following sentence is simple enough: “Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, is devoted to fitness.” The words “wife” and “Michelle” refer to the same person and are, therefore, set off by commas. Grammatically, they are appositives; if you drop the name “Michelle” from the sentence it still makes sense. “Michelle” is (according to the rules) an appositive, the explanatory equivalent of another noun.
If, however, you are writing about Bin Laden and intend to point out one of his wives, rather than another, using commas would be a mistake. “Bin Laden’s wife Amal al-Sadah told Pakistani officials that he never left the house” is correct. (While if you left the commas out when referring to Michelle, you’d be implying our president is a polygamist.)
But something that really riles me is the use of a comma after a title or descriptive phrase. What on earth is the comma doing in the following sentence? “President, Barack Obama is a married man.” Such nonsensical commas are now found all over the place. But you won’t find them in The New York Times or (I hope) The East Hampton Star.
Intrusive commas are up at the top the list of things that get my goat.
There are others:
Ferns that cover the astilbe
Not knowing how to line up columns in Word
Radios left on when no one is listening
High sodium in food labeled low sodium
My right foot
Violence in children’s movies
Lack of seltzer
Lack of cookies
Lack of Teacher’s Scotch
Empty summer houses
Dust on the baseboards