An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.

13 responses to “An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

  1. On your last point, I think some people are actually being taught to use commas before titles. A while back my kids were watching WordGirl, and there was a song with the line “Always use a comma before quotation marks.” I wanted to throw something through the TV. Maybe they didn’t mean for the rule to be applied to literally every instance of quotation marks, but that’s what you get for wording it so broadly.

  2. …although if you’re going by Chicago, report titles are italicized.

    • Ach. The original conversation shifted to a book title on that point and I changed it for the blog to a report without looking in Chicago… Anyway, the quotes versus italics are superfluous to the comma issue.

  3. Crap. I tagged that text with opening and closing “asshole” tags in angle brackets, but they didn’t come through!

    • <dick>So you just discovered that the comments take HTML tags as tags!</dick>

      • (I used ampersand lt semicolon and ampersand gt semicolon to code the angle brackets. If I were to edit the comment they would be taken as tags and disappear – unless I redid them – because it displays them as the characters, not the codes, when editing… hazard of web-based CMSes.)

  4. Why make this so complicated? Here’s an easy way to get those commas right every time: http://wp.me/pU98s-1d2

    • It’s a nice general rule to follow, yes. But people can use that approach to get them wrong, too. Intonation is sometimes guided by misapprehensions about the syntactic structure (or by nonstandard interpretations of it, the linguist in me says). Cases such as “Borough president, John Carter, said that…” may seem perfectly reasonable to people going by impressionistic judgements, but they’re not correct in standard English. So when an editor needs to be clear on the point, it’s worth going through the actual grammar – which is, in its way, not actually complicated, but sometimes spelling out why it is as it is can be involved.

  5. Pingback: Comma commentary | ***Dave Does the Blog

  6. Frank Flanagan

    Dear James Harbeck,

    I have only recently become aware of your wonderful blog; I am now close to being addicted!

    I was particularly interested in the issue regarding the use of commas when referring to article titles.

    On thing in particular intrigues me in relation to this:

    *’A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.’*

    Where a comma is appropriate why is the comma – which is not a part of the title of the report in question – *within* the quotation marks/inverted commas? Surely ‘*A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa”, makes no mention of the weather in January’ *would be more accurate?*.*

    Le gach dea-ghuí

    Frank M.

    • It would be more accurate, yes, but the North American standard as set by our most influential style guides is to put a period or comma inside closing quotes whether it belongs to the quoted text or not (colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation marks all go outside, though – go figure). I do it not because I like it but because it’s such a broad standard here I might as well not kick against it (and I have to do it in my day job). On the east side of the Atlantic, of course, it goes outside, as is more logical.

      And thanks for the compliment!

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