Comma sutra is a funny term — more or less based on “karma sutra” — and designed to get your attention.
For whatever reason, many writers never learned the simple trick of knowing when and why to use a comma between a name and a title (or an occupation).
Here’s what I see on a daily basis in articles I read:
- Interior Designer, Mary Smith, will answer all our questions.
- CEO, Jess Brown, talked about the restructuring of the company.
- Senior Vice President and Comptroller, Maria Lopez, visited us today.
And I could show you thousands more, but three are enough to show you what is WRONG. Yes, wrong.
Why? Because you cannot remove the name and still have a sentence as it is written. No, you can’t. It just doesn’t work. You cannot say “Interior Designer will answer all our questions,” not in English, anyway. The name is necessary in each of the examples, which means the commas have to be removed. (For more on commas with nonessential/essential information, click here.)
1. When a title comes before a name
When a title comes BEFORE a name, no matter how long it is, never use a comma between the title and the name.
Here’s the trick: Substitute “Mr.” or “Ms.” for the title. Would you ever write “Mr., John Smith will discuss the issue today”? Would you ever write (or say) “Mr. will discuss the issue today”? No. The title and the name that follows are one unit and cannot be separated by a comma.
- Entrepreneur Bill Gates has . . .
- Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Bill Gates has . . .
- Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has . . .
How can you be sure in the above examples? Remove the name Bill Gates. Does each sentence still work? No. Without the name, the sentence falls apart. Therefore, the name is essential for sentence clarity.
2. When the occupation comes first
When an occupation comes before a name, always enclose the name with two commas (or parentheses).
Sometimes what comes in front of the name is an occupation, not a title. And if that’s true, we DO use commas — two of them — around the name that follows.
How can you tell if it’s an occupation or a title? A title identifies who the person is. An occupation identifies what the person does, and it will have either an article in front of it like “a,” “an,” “the” or a phrase like “one of our” or “our best.”
- Title: Doctor Smith will see you now.
Occupation: The doctor, John Smith, will see you now.
Occupation: The new doctor (John Smith) will see you now.
Occupation: The doctor will see you now.
- Title: Interior Designer Susan Smith loves the color red!
Occupation: My interior designer, Susan Smith, loves the color red!
Occupation: My interior designer (Susan Smith) really loves the color red!
Occupation: My interior designer really loves the color red!
- Title: Senior Vice President of Marketing Joan Smith is in her office.
Occupation: Our Senior Vice President of Marketing, Joan Smith, is in her office.
Occupation: Our Senior Vice President of Marketing (Joan Smith) is in her office.
Occupation: Our Senior Vice President of Marketing is in her office.
- Title: CEO Sharon Levy will attend the conference.
Occupation: Our company’s CEO, Sharon Levy, will attend the conference.
Occupation: Our company’s CEO (Sharon Levy) will attend the conference.
Occupation: Our company’s CEO will attend the conference.
Notice that removing the names when the occupation comes first does not change the basic intent of each sentence. For more information, click here.
3. When the name comes first
When the name comes first, always use two commas or parentheses to surround the occupation or the title that follows.
- Susan Rooks helps us to learn American grammar rules.
- Susan Rooks, the Grammar Goddess, helps us learn American grammar rules.
- John White, CMO at SMS | Brand Ambassador at beBee, writes wonderful and helpful social media blog posts!
- John White writes wonderful and helpful social media blog posts!
- Sarah Elkins will be speaking today at the Helena Chamber of Commerce.
- Sarah Elkins, Customer Service Maven, Storyteller, and Professional Musician, will be speaking today at the Helena Chamber of Commerce.
This idea of essential and nonessential information in a sentence makes many writers crazy. Again, check out my earlier posts using commas, especially the one on essential / nonessential information, that might help you.