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a) He continued to mark his papers when student Sarah entered the room.

Without the context of say: *his favourite student or a specific description such as the student with the red hair can commas be omitted?

If we just say they are in apposition and require commas that doesn't account for the context or how many students are present or are not? As written, I'd assume he has the one student Sarah, but some may suggest they are in apposition and require commas and Sarah is parenthetical.

Something like: The dog, Charlie, chased the cat.

No context can changed and there is no ambiguity, but in a) the commas may change how the sentence may be interpreted.

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    But we don't say "student Sarah", so there's no point discussing its meaning. We do say, "Professor Smith", "Professor" being a title. But words like "student", "teacher", "golfer" and "postman" aren't titles. ["Postman Pat" is a rare exception!] If she was his only student we would say, "...when his student, Sarah, entered...". If not, we would say, "...when Sarah, one of his students, entered..." It's interesting that you are asking about commas yet barely using them in your question. That makes it impossible to understand. – Old Brixtonian Jan 2 at 1:54
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The sentence doesn't make sense as written without context. "Student" is not a title, so we wouldn't typically use it this way. Comma placement doesn't fix the sentence.

One exception I can think of is when explaining a scenario with multiple students. But if using proper names, it's more natural to just say "Sarah" after introducing her as a student.

The teacher has three students, A, B, and C. Student A is in his 9:00 am class while students B and C are in his 10:00 am class.

There are multiple ways to fix the example sentence depending on the meaning intended. One possibility:

He continued to mark his papers when a student, Sarah, entered the room.

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  • Does a student fix it because the sentence can be read as complete without the reference to the name: He continued to mark his papers when a student entered the room? – bluebell1 Jan 6 at 18:36
  • @bluebell It fixes it because it no longer treats "student" like a title, instead treating it like a noun. If "student" was a valid title like "Professor" or "Doctor" you could use it that way. I think the key is you need to use a proper noun ("<title> Sarah" or just "Sarah") or a regular noun ("a student"). – mjjf Jan 7 at 19:05

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