Short Guide to the Usage of Appositives

“The bug, a large, hairy spider that has set its sights on my apple, is floating down from the ceiling.”

“While we were talking, Barnaby, the messiest eater, spit soup like an out of control garden hose.”

What do each of these sentences have in common?  They all contain examples of appositives.

What are appositives? Keep reading to learn more.

Simple Guides Concerning Appositives

Simply put, appositives are nouns that are used to rename or describe other nouns. They are used with the intent of providing additional information about a person, place or thing that has already been named.

The way an appositive is punctuated will depend largely on whether or not the appositive is essential or non essential to a sentence.

Hint: While a person’s name may be both essential and non-essential, there is no hard rule on whether or not a comma should be added. You will see it both ways, depending on the publication.

Meaning, “My wife Margaret likes blueberries” and “My wife, Margaret, likes blueberries” are the same sentence. Although some people would argue the need to encase a name in commas, particularly as most people only have one wife.

What is an Appositive?

An appositive is a literary device used with the specific purpose of providing a more detailed explanation or modification of a noun. Appositive definition states that an appositive is “a noun or noun phrase that renames the noun that is closest to it. The appositive can be a single word or an appositive phrase.”

Here is an example, “My sister Julie loves grilled cheese sandwiches.” (Julie is the appositive, and sister is the word being described by the appositive.)

Can you guess which word (or words) are the appositive(s) in this sentence?

“My sister’s purse, a pink Chanel clutch, was stolen last night”

Answer: a pink Chanel clutch is the appositive, and wallet is the noun being described by the appositive.

There are a few rules that appositives must follow. In most cases, the appositive will come after the word or phrase that it is intended to describe, however, there are times when the appositive will be placed at the start or end of a sentence too.

For example: An experienced leader, Queen Elizabeth was born in England.

In the sentence above, you see the noun (and the subject) is Queen Elizabeth. In this example, the appositive, an experienced leader, has been placed at the start of the sentence and it works just as well.

If you find yourself confused, be mindful of one thing relating to appositive commas: Appositives that are not essential for establishing the complete meaning of a sentence should be separated from the remainder of the sentence with a comma, or commas. Appositives that are essential for establishing the complete meaning of a sentence should not be separated by a commas or commas.

Here is an example:

Constable Janes told my sister to file a police report about her stolen wallet.

In the example above, the appositive is essential to understanding the complete sentence, so commas are not used. Janes indicates specifically which police constable is being referred to and void of that information, the sentence might not make sense. (You wouldn’t say “Constable told my sister to file a police report about her stolen wallet.”)

Referring back to an earlier example, “My sister’s purse, a pink Chanel clutch, was stolen last night.” Here, the speaker clearly states that their sister had her wallet stolen the previous night, but “a pink Chanel clutch” is not essential information needed in order to understand what the statement is about. Therefore, this appositive must be separate by commas.

Think of it this way, appositives that add additional information to a sentence need to be separated from the sentence with commas.

What is actual Appositive meaning and usage?

Remember not to go ‘comma crazy’, using commas too frequently or not in the right way is an issue. Bear in mind that not every non-essential appositive needs to be separated by commas. This is especially true when the appositive comes at the start of a sentence. Take the above sentence about Queen Elizabeth, for example:

An experienced leader, Queen Elizabeth was born in England.

There is only one comma needed because the part about her being an experienced leader is the additional information.

Stacey was speaking to Samantha, Karen’s mother-in-law.

In this statement, only a single comma is needed to separate the appositive from the rest of the sentence because of its placement at the end of the sentence and because the fact that Samantha is Karen’s mother-in-law is supplementary information.

Using unnecessary appositives can also be problematic. Despite being a useful writing tool, unnecessary appositives might also make sentences difficult to comprehend. Here is an example of a sentence from the Chicago Manual of Styles 15th edition:

By 1705, ten years after the Press Act, numbers had risen again, and there were about 62 (print houses), not including the royal printers.

This sentence is not very easy to follow, but let’s underline the unnecessary appositives and examine it further.

By 1705, ten years after the Press Act, number had risen again, and there were about 62 (print houses), not including the royal printers.

Since the unnecessary appositives offer additional information, it is possible to omit them without altering the intended meaning of the sentence. This will help when a sentence is hard to understand. Consider the above example, only this time remove the unnecessary appositives:

By 1706, numbers had risen again, and there were about 62 (print houses).

Much easier to comprehend!

Some of Appositive Examples

To gain a better understanding of appositives and how they should – or should not – be used, read a few chapters of your favorite book and see if you can pick out the appositives. Now, try reading the same chapters, only remove the appositives, does it change the meaning of the paragraphs?