The Grammarphobia Blog

Jenny was a friend of mine

Q: Do you agree with the punctuation (or, rather, lack of it) in the following sentences? 1) I brought my friend Jenny to the party. 2) I brought my friend Jenny Ann Smith to the party. I seem to recall being taught in high school that commas are not used if the clarifying phrase is one or two words. Anything longer would require commas.

A: Both sentences are correct. You would surround the name with commas in those sentences only if Jenny were your only friend. Since you seem to be speaking of her restrictively (that is, as one of your friends, not as your only friend), no commas are needed.

On the other hand, if Jenny were your mother (and most people have only one of those), then you would use commas:

1. I brought my mother, Jenny, to the party.

2. I brought my mother, Jenny Ann Smith, to the party.

Your high-school teacher may have described these as examples of appositives. An appositive identifies the same thing or person by a different name. And the number of words used in the appositive is irrelevant.

You use commas with an appositive that’s nonrestrictive (as in, “My mother, Jenny Smith”). It’s called nonrestrictive because she’s the only mother you have and has no need to be distinguished from others.

But you don’t use commas with an appositive that’s restrictive (as in “My friend Jenny”). It’s called restrictive, as I’ve mentioned above, because she’s one of many friends.

I hope this helps. Sorry for the technical talk, but you asked for it!

And you can always say (as The Killers, a post-punk revival band, sings), “Jenny was a friend of mine.”

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