ImageQuestion: What is wrong with the following sentence?

Noted editorial busybody, Julia Rubiner, was overheard remarking, "Rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society."

Answer: It's got two commas too many, the ones around "Julia Rubiner." It should read simply:

Noted editorial busybody Julia Rubiner was overheard remarking, "Rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society."

Question: What's right in the following sentence?

It is the opinion of Julia Rubiner,
Many a writer has found himself flummoxed by those commas. Do we need them? Why do we need them? Where are they supposed to go? Does it really matter?
the noted editorial busybody, that the rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society.

Answer: Among other things, its commas are properly situated on either side of the descriptive phrase "the noted editorial busybody."

Many a writer has found himself flummoxed by those commas. Do we need them? Why do we need them? Where are they supposed to go? Does it really matter?

If you wish to communicate clearly – and we know you do – it does. So let us now speak of essential and nonessential phrases.

As per our close, personal friends at the "Associated Press Stylebook" (who we hope interpret our presentation here as fair use and perhaps even a service to humankind):

An essential phrase is a word or group of words critical to the reader's understanding of what the author had in mind.

A nonessential phrase provides more information about something. Although the information may be helpful to the reader's comprehension, the reader would not be misled if the information were not there.

What does that have to do with commas? The "AP" continues:

Do not set an essential phrase off from the rest of a sentence by commas:

We saw the award-winning movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (No comma [before the word "One"], because many movies have won awards, and without the name of the movie the reader would not know which movie was meant [i.e. the name of the movie is essential information here.])

They ate dinner with their daughter Julie. (Because they have more than one daughter, the inclusion of Julie's name is critical if the reader is to know which daughter is meant [thus no comma.])

Set off nonessential phrases by commas:

We saw the 1975 winner in the Academy Award competition for best picture, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (Only one movie won the award. The name is informative, but even without the name no other movie could be meant [i.e. the name of the movie is nonessential information.])

They ate dinner with their daughter Julie and her husband, David. (Julie has only one husband. If the phrase read and her husband David, it would suggest that she had more than one husband [i.e. as opposed to her husband Lee or her husband Roth.])

The company chairman, Henry Ford II, spoke. (In the context, only one person could be meant.)

Indian corn, or maize, was harvested. (Maize provides the reader with the name of the corn, but its absence would not change the meaning of the sentence.)

Mmm – maize. I expect about now you're saying to yourselves, "Yeah, yeah, we love the 'AP,' too, but what does all this have to do with noted editorial busybody Julia Rubiner and the rampant-comma-misuse-engendered rending of society's very fabric?"

I'm glad you asked. The "AP" goes on to say:

Do not confuse rules for nonessential clauses with the correct punctuation when a nonessential word is [or nonessential words are] used as a descriptive adjective. The distinguishing clue often is the lack of an article or pronoun:

Right: Julie and husband Jeff went shopping. Julie and her husband, Jeff, went shopping.

Right: Company Chairman Henry Ford II made the announcement. The company chairman, Henry Ford II, made the announcement.

To which I would add:

Wrong: Julie and husband, Jeff, went shopping. Julie and her husband Jeff went shopping.

Wrong: Company Chairman, Henry Ford II, made the announcement. The company chairman Henry Ford II made the announcement.

This, of course, brings us to:

Wrong: Noted editorial busybody, Julia Rubiner, was overheard remarking, "Rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society."

"Julia Rubiner" is an essential phrase; the fact that Julia Rubiner said this is essential information.
Essential = no commas.
Nonessential = commas.
After all, there are many editorial busybodies in the world – some of your best friends, perhaps – but in this instance, only Julia Rubiner said, "Rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society." So, in this case, you forgo the commas.

Right: Noted editorial busybody Julia Rubiner was overheard remarking, "Rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society."

Essential = no commas.

Wrong: It is the opinion of Julia Rubiner the noted editorial busybody that the rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society.

"The noted editorial busybody" is a nonessential phrase; the fact that Julia Rubiner is a noted editorial busybody may impart an additional measure of insight, but it is not essential information for someone trying to understand this sentence. So, in this case, you need the commas.

Right: It is the opinion of Julia Rubiner, the noted editorial busybody, that the rampant misuse of commas is rending the very fabric of society.

Nonessential = commas.

Here's a little something to help you remember when you need those commas and when you don't: If you can remove the information you're considering putting between commas – imagine a raptor swooping down and plucking it off the page – and the sentence still accurately conveys your meaning, that information is nonessential and thus you do, in fact, need those commas.

Phew. Glad we got that straightened out.