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In this sentence, should I put a comma (after previous film) to indicate there is only one last/previous film or should I withhold the comma to mean there may be more than one previous/last films?

She appeared in a pivotal role in her previous film Star. (She has acted in many films.)

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When dealing with restrictive Vs non-restrictive commas, you need to consider whether the additional clause or appositive is narrowing down the possibilities for the item you're talking about (no comma) or if adding that information doesn't help you narrow down who you're talking about.

E.g. compare and contrast the following restrictive and non-restrictive clauses: The children who are nice get a reward. (No comma in this restrictive clause means that there is a larger group of children, a subset of whom are nice; the detail of being 'nice' narrows down the scope of 'children'.

The children, who are nice, get a reward. (Commas being used here implies that all of the children are nice, so adding the detail of being 'nice' doesn't narrow down whom you are talking about.

Same with appositives: Restrictive phrasing: She appeared in a pivotal role in her film Star. ('Star' narrows you down to just one of her films)

Non-restrictive phrasing: She appeared in a pivotal role in her previous film, Star. ('Previous film' specifies the exact film, so adding that the name of the film is 'Star' doesnt do any further restricting).

TL;DR: it's non-restrictive here, so use a comma

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    "Previous" doesn't have to mean "immediately previous". We are given to understand that Star is one of several previous films. The title is non-restrictive if we're talking about her last film (of which there is one), but it is restrictive if we're talking about her previous film (of which there are many). We still need to narrow down to which previous film. – Gary Botnovcan Sep 28 '17 at 23:03
  • That's a fair point; I had parsed the word 'previous' as 'immediately previous' (c.f. english.stackexchange.com/questions/248416/… ). – David Bodow Sep 28 '17 at 23:19
  • Doing some further research, I'm seeing frequent usage of 'previous' referring to 'immediately previous', so perhaps it's a valid inference. Consider "the previous administration had FEMA as an independent agency" or "He has spent the previous afternoon doing XXYY". From a wordandphrase.info/frequencyList.asp frequency search for 'previous', 5 of the top 10 results seem to imply the immediacy. The following, in fact, seems particularly analogical to this question: "...in contrast to 17 million copies worldwide for his previous CD..." – David Bodow Sep 28 '17 at 23:26
  • Ah, but there we can distinguish between "the previous" (of which there is only one) and "a previous" (of which there are many). We don't get that information from "her previous" -- of which, well, um, I only know that there are many because the question explicitly says so. – Gary Botnovcan Sep 28 '17 at 23:31
  • I think the "his previous CD" usage might be a counter-example. To be fair, looking through 10 example of a corpus may just be reflecting common mistakes or even random noise, but it does seem widespread enough to merit further investigation. Thanks, Gary; this has been an instructive exchange! – David Bodow Sep 28 '17 at 23:35
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The word previous tells us that she has acted in at least two films. The comma does not contribute anything to that idea.

She appeared in a pivotal role in Star, her previous film.

She appeared in a pivotal role in her previous film, Star.

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