Commas

Q. Dear CMOS, Perhaps you can help resolve a raging debate I have been having with my coauthor. This debate, which is perilously close to becoming a very ugly brawl, concerns the all too underused phrase “nobody, but nobody.” I say that “but nobody” is a parenthetic expression and should be set off in commas, as in “Nobody, but nobody, should trifle with the Etiquette Grrls.” She insists vehemently that the commas absolutely, positively, MUST go, no arguments about it, and I have been unable to persuade her to change her mind. I think it looks simply dreadful without the commas, and besides, the meaning is then altered to “nobody EXCEPT FOR nobody,” isn’t it? (Rather than simply emphasizing the first “nobody.”) Who is correct? Thank you ever so much. Also, may I say that I simply adore your Q&A page? (I’m a Grammar Geek, I guess . . . what can one say?) I had no idea that such things as style could be so witty! Thanks again! Yours sincerely, Honore Ervin, The Etiquette Grrls Are Crusading for Polite Behavior in a Tacky, Rude World. http://www.etiquettegrrls.com

A. Dear Ms. Ervin: I’m glad you wrote in time for me to prevent the Etiquette Grrls from engaging in a very ugly brawl. The fact is, both constructions are just fine. If you want to imply a pause for emphasis, use the commas. If you want to say that nobody except for nobody does something (a weirdly reasonable thing to say), omit the commas.

Now shake hands and stop fussing.