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a. The brother of Pete's wife, John, was at the party.

b. The brother of Pete's wife John was at the party.

Which is correctly punctuated if John is the brother of Pete's wife?

I think the problem with (b) is that it makes one think that John is Pete's wife. I guess (a) could be read that way too, but I think (b) unambiguously says that John is Pete's wife.

In other words I think (a) is ambiguous and (b) has only one meaning, and it is not the one we want.

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    In real life people would say "Pete's brother-in-law, John" or "John, the brother of Pete's wife/Pete's wife's brother". Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 9:20
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    No doubt about it. Without the commas, (b) above would mean that Pete's wife (who strangely enough is called John! :) has a brother who was at the party. That's still the case regardless of whether Pete has other wives who aren't called John. Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 11:57

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If there were only one brother of Pete's wife, then the appositive should be nonrestrictive, so (a) would be correct. If there were multiple brothers, then the appositive should be restrictive, so (b) would be correct.

As you note, there could be some ambiguity, because the appositive's antecedent might not be "the brother of Pete's wife" but might instead be "Pete's wife". If we assume that "John" is male, then common sense should tell us that this is impossible. However, in other cases (for example, if the name were "Pat" instead of "John"), the situation could be ambiguous.

You might claim that (b) can not be ambiguous: Pete presumably has only one wife, so "Pete's wife" can not take a restrictive appositive, so it can not be the antecedent of "Pat". However, apparently unique phrases can take restrictive appositives that provide clarifying information for the reader. Therefore, both of these sentences are ambiguous:

The brother of Pete's wife, Pat, was at the party.

The brother of Pete's wife Pat was at the party.

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