Punctuating Appositives


Punctuation isn’t complicated once you know what you’re looking at. I see many writers making errors when punctuating appositives. This may be a new term for many folks, so we’ll take a look at what I mean by “appositive,” and then we’ll figure out how to punctuate them correctly.

WHAT’S AN APPOSITIVE?

An appositive is a word or phrase that

  1. renames something you have written and
  2. can serve the same grammatical function as the word or phrase it renames.

If the word or phrase passes these two tests, it is an appositive.

FIRST EXAMPLE OF AN APPOSITIVE

Here’s a sentence with an appositive. Let’s take a look at the phrase “a harsh and stubborn woman.” Is this an appositive?

The committee chairwoman, a harsh and stubborn woman, scorned the director’s request.

First test: In this sample, the phrase “a harsh and stubborn woman” renames “The committee chairwoman.” It means the same thing. This satisfies the first test.

Second test: “The committee chairwoman” is the subject of this sentence. However, if we leave out this subject, then “a harsh and stubborn woman” will serve as the subject (minus the commas around it). In this way, “a harsh and stubborn woman” can serve the same grammatical function as “the committee chairwoman.” This satisfies the second test.

Another way to perform this test is to leave out one phrase and then the other, resulting in two sentences. If they are both grammatically correct, then the phrase passes the second test. Using this example, we have the following two grammatically correct sentences.

The committee chairwoman scorned the director’s request.

A harsh and stubborn woman scorned the director’s request.

Based on these two tests, the phrase “a harsh and stubborn woman” is an appositive. We say that this phrase is in apposition to “the committee chairwoman.”

SECOND EXAMPLE OF AN APPOSITVE

Here is another sentence with an appositive.

My brother, a violin player, is coming home.

The phrase “a violin player” is an appositive. It is in apposition to “My brother,” and it passes the two tests: 1) it renames “my brother;” 2) it can serve the same grammatical function.

THIRD EXAMPLE OF AN APPOSITIVE
Most appositives follow the word or phrase they rename. Here’s a sentence in which the appositive is before the word it renames.

A streak in the sky, the eagle raced overhead.

The appositive is “a streak in the sky.” It renames “eagle” and can serve the same grammatical function. We can write “The eagle raced overhead” or “A streak in the sky raced overhead.”

HOW DO I PUNCTUATE AN APPOSITIVE?

Now, what are the rules for punctuating appositives? How do you punctuate an appositive? Now that we know what appositives are, let’s figure out how to punctuate them. To answer this question, we first have to decide what type of appositive we are using: non-restrictive or restrictive.

Non-restrictive appositives: By non-restrictive, we mean they are simply renaming something. We are only referring to one thing, a category with only one thing in it. When appositives are non-restrictive, they are set off with commas. The examples above are all non-restrictive.

In the first example above, only one woman is the committee chairwoman. We don’t need to restrict the category to indicate which woman because it only has one woman in it; we’re just providing additional information about that woman. As such, the appositive is set off with commas.

Restrictive appositives: By restrictive, we mean that we have used a name for a broad category with many things in it. We want the reader to know which thing we’re writing about, so we need to restrict the broad category to a narrow category that only contains one thing. When appositives are restrictive, they are not set off with commas.

Here is a sentence with a restrictive appositive:

The belief that he was alone led him to depression.

The restrictive appositive is “that he was alone.” This phrase renames “the belief,” and, as a noun phrase, it can also serve as the subject (though this will sound awkward to native English speakers).

Why is this restrictive? The category “belief” has many things in it (i.e., contains many individual beliefs), and we want to indicate the one belief to which we are referring. We are restricting the broad category to a very narrow category, the broad category of beliefs to the narrow category of belief that he was alone. As such, this appositive is not set off with commas.

EXAMPLES FROM ONLINE REFERENCE SITES

Let’s look at two examples of appositives taken from the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/596/1).

My brother’s car, a sporty red convertible with bucket seats, is the envy of my friends.

The appositive is “a sporty red convertible with bucket seats.” This is in apposition to “car.” It is renaming “car” inasmuch as it means the same thing. “Car” = “a sporty red convertible with bucket seats” (first test). Also, it can serve the same grammatical function as “car.” In this sentence, “My brother’s car” is the subject. However, if we remove the subject (and fix the punctuation), “A sporty red convertible with bucket seats” becomes the subject (second test).

[This one is non-restrictive. My brother has only one car. As such, the appositive is set off with commas.]

Your friend Bill is in trouble.

 “Bill” is in apposition to “friend.” “Bill” is renaming “friend” inasmuch as it means the same thing (first test). “Friend” = “Bill” (first test). Second, the appositive can serve the same grammatical function. The sentence “Your friend is in trouble” has the same grammatical structure as “Bill is in trouble” (second test).

[This one is restrictive, assuming you have more than one friend. We are narrowing the broad category of “friend” to a narrow category called “friends named Bill.” As such, the appositive is not set off with commas. The broad category has many things in it, i.e., many friends, so we need to restrict it to point out the one we’re writing about.]

The Center for Writing Studies (CWS) at the University of Illinois (http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/appositives/) provides a decent definition: “Appositives are two words or word groups which MEAN THE SAME THING and are placed together. Appositives identify or explain the nouns or pronouns which they modify.” Here is one of their examples:

Our teacher, Professor Lamanna, loves grammar.

The appositive they identify is “Professor Lamanna.” This appositive renames “our teacher” and can serve the same grammatical function if “our teacher” (and the pair of commas) is removed.

WHAT DO I DO?

  1. Find your appositives. To determine whether or not a word or words are appositives, look at what they mean and how they are used.
  2. Decide whether the appositive is restrictive or non-restrictive.
  3. Once you have done these two tasks, use the punctuation rules above to determine whether or not to set them off with commas.

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2 Comments

Filed under Editing, Mechanics, Writing

2 responses to “Punctuating Appositives

  1. OMIC

    Hi

    A nice post. Thank you.

    I’d like to point out one thing and ask a question about another.

    There may be a typo near the end – and can serve the same grammatical function if “our teacher”. If should be of?

    My question relates to the example:

    Our teacher, Professor Lamanna, loves grammar.

    Written like this I can’t know with confidence whether the sentence contains a correct non-restrictive apposite or an incorrect RA. Is that a fair comment? My sense is the the group “our” must have more than one teacher based on the fact that the teacher is a professor and therefore likely to be one of a number of teachers at a college or university that the group will be taught by.

    Greateful if you could comment.

    Thanks

    John

  2. John,

    Thanks for stopping by-glad you enjoyed this post.

    That’s no typo. Consider the entire sentence– without the parenthetical expresion and with the implied words added–and you’ll see that “if” is the correct word:

    This appositive renames “our teacher” and can serve the same grammatical function [as the phrase "our teacher"] if “our teacher” is removed.

    Basically, what this is saying is that 1) “Our teacher” and “Professor Lamanna” have the same meaning, and 2) if we remove the current subject, “our teacher,” and the commas, then “Professor Lamanna” will be the subject.

    Yup, that’s a fair comment. We know that this is a non-restrictive appositive because of the commas. But what if the commas are wrong? For example, I can make the following restrictive appositive:

    My dad, Charles, understands nuclear physics.

    Here, we have one dad and one name for that dad. But what if I write this?

    My uncle Charles understands nuclear physics.

    Without the commas, this looks like a non-restrictive appositive, indicating that I have more than one uncle but that the one named “Charles” understands physics. Those commas tell the reader whether I have only one uncle or more than one uncle.

    In the example you discussed, we assume that the commas are correct. If they are not correct, the writer has miscommunicated his idea.

    (And people don’t think commas matter!)

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