(My goofy title is an allusion to the first line of “Handy Man,” of which Wikipedia says: “Handy Man” is a rock and roll song credited to singer Jimmy Jones and songwriter Otis Blackwell. It was originally recorded by The Sparks Of Rhythm, a group Jones had been a member of when he wrote it, although he was not with them when they recorded it. In 1959, Jones recorded the song himself, in a version which had been reworked by Blackwell , who also produced the session. “Handy Man”went to number three on the R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, becoming a million seller . The song was a hit again in 1964 for Del Shannon and again for James Taylor in 1977. Taylor’s version of the song was the most successful, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the adult contemporary chart .})
I’m a fair grammarian, but this NY Times piece taught me a lot. Here’s a snippet:
The Most Comma Mistakes
By BEN YAGODA
As I noted in my earlier article, rules and conventions about when to use and not to use commas are legion. But certain errors keep popping up. Here are a few of them.
Identification Crisis. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:
I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.
Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None is correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:
I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.
If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:
I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.
You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and before “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.
The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.
Grammatically, there are various ways of describing what’s going on. One helpful set of terms is essential vs. nonessential. When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the name is nonessential and you use a comma before it. Otherwise, no comma. That explains an exception to the only-thing-in-the-world rule: when the words “a,” “an” or “some,” or a number, come before the description or identification of a name, use a comma.