Several years back, I was roundly criticized for using the one-word “sometime” and the restrictive noun phrase “my wife Leonor” in this lead sentence of a column of mine: “Sometime ago, my wife Leonor brought home something that took me off balance for a moment, then had me laughing in stitches for minutes.” My highly assertive interlocutor insisted (1) that the phrase “my wife Leonor” should have been punctuated by a comma after “wife” (“my wife, Leonor”) to avoid creating the impression that I had more than just one wife, and (2) that the two-word “some time” should have been used to mean “a passage of time” instead of the one-word “sometime,” which means “at an unspecified point in time.”
The critic observed that my usage illustrates the growing tendency of writers to omit as many commas as possible, pointedly saying that he was still in favor of the “rule” that parenthetic phrases or words be punctuated to eliminate possible confusion.
Looking back with a chuckle to that two-pronged critique, I still can’t imagine how anyone could have concluded that I had more than one wife when I used “my wife Leonor” in a restrictive appositive form. I always use the phrase “my wife Leonor” without punctuation not only as the better part of valor (for the record, Leonor is my one and only wife) but precisely to eliminate grammatical confusion. To me, “my wife Leonor” is logically a single noun phrase, the words “my wife” and Leonor” being nouns so closely related that they might as well be just one term. That being the case, the noun “Leonor” in my mind becomes a restrictive appositive, for which a comma before and after it would be superfluous.
Even if there’s no possibility of an identity mix-up, the restrictive appositive form is often preferable to the nonrestrictive form if the appositive and the word it identifies are so closely related, as in “Her husband Alfredo is trying his luck as an overseas foreign worker.” Here, it can be argued that commas should set off “Alfredo” because this name isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence, thus making it a nonrestrictive appositive.
However, “her husband” and “Alfredo” are so closely related that they can logically be considered a single noun phrase and a restrictive appositive, “her husband Alfredo.”
However, we must keep in mind that restrictive appositives work well only when they are just one word (“my wife Leonor”), two words (“the author Ernest Hemingway”), or three words at most (the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder). A phrase longer than that generally doesn’t function well as a restrictive appositive; without the enclosing commas that set off nonrestrictive appositive phrases from a sentence, such phrases as restrictive appositives tend to make sentences convoluted and difficult to grasp.
Now, as to the one-word “sometime” in that lead sentence of mine, “Sometime ago, my wife Leonor brought home something that took me off balance…”, I used it as an American English adverb in the sense of “at some not specified or definitely known point of time.” It also works as an adjective in the sense of “having been formerly” or “being so occasionally or in only some respects,” as in “As a sometime interscholastic debater, he knew the dangers of overstating one’s argument.”
In contrast, the two-word “some time” means “quite a while,” as in “It has been some time since Leonor and I went on a foreign trip together.” The two-word variety can also be used with “some” as an adjective referring to time, as in “Her son Jack has been spending some time developing an animated game for his college thesis.”
So there you go. I hope I have clarified once and for all those two usage questions that readers ask me every so often.
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