Appositive Phrase

An appositive is a word or group of words that identifies or renames another word in a sentence. As we’ve seen (in the article What Is an Appositive?), appositive constructions offer concise ways of describing or defining a person, place, or thing. In this article you will learn how to construct sentences with appositives.

A. From Adjective Clauses to Appositives

Like an adjective clause, an appositive provides more information about a noun. In fact, we may think of an appositive as a simplified adjective clause. Consider, for example, how the following two sentences can be combined:

  • Jimbo Gold is a professional magician.
  • Jimbo Gold performed at my sister’s birthday party.

One way to combine these sentences is to turn the first sentence into an adjective clause:

Jimbo Gold, who is a professional magician, performed at my sister’s birthday party.

We also have the option of reducing the adjective clause in this sentence to an appositive. All that we need to do is omit the pronoun who and the verb is:

Jimbo Gold, a professional magician, performed at my sister’s birthday party.

The appositive a professional magician serves to identify the subject, Jimbo Gold. Reducing an adjective clause to an appositive is one way to cut the clutter in our writing.

However, not all adjective clauses can be shortened to appositives in this fashion–only those that contain a form of the verb to be (is, are, was, were).

B. Arranging Appositives

An appositive most often appears directly after the noun it identifies or renames:

Arizona Bill, “The Great Benefactor of Mankind,” toured Oklahoma with herbal cures and a powerful liniment.

Note that this appositive, like most, could be omitted without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. In other words, it’s nonrestrictive and needs to be set off with a pair of commas.

Occasionally, an appositive may appear in front of a word that it identifies:

A dark wedge, the eagle hurtled earthward at nearly 200 miles per hour.

An appositive at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma.

In each of the examples seen so far, the appositive has referred to the subject of the sentence. However, an appositive may appear before or after any noun in a sentence. In the following example, the appositive refers to roles, the object of a preposition:

People are summed up largely by the roles they fill in society–wife or husband, soldier or salesperson, student or scientist–and by the qualities that others ascribe to them.

This sentence demonstrates a different way of punctuating appositives–with dashes. When the appositive itself contains commas, setting off the construction with dashes helps to prevent confusion. Using dashes instead of commas also serves to emphasize the appositive.

Placing an appositive at the very end of a sentence is another way to give it special emphasis. Compare these two sentences:

At the far end of the pasture, the most magnificent animal I had ever seen–a white-tailed deer–was cautiously edging toward a salt-lick block.

At the far end of the pasture, the most magnificent animal I had ever seen was cautiously edging toward a salt-lick block–a white-tailed deer.

Whereas the appositive merely interrupts the first sentence, it marks the climax of sentence two.



C. Punctuating Nonrestrictive and Restrictive Appositives

As we’ve seen, most appositives are nonrestrictive–that is, the information that they add to a sentence is not essential for the sentence to make sense. Nonrestrictive appositives are set off by commas or dashes.

A restrictive appositive (like a restrictive adjective clause) is one that cannot be omitted from a sentence without affecting the basic meaning of the sentence. A restrictive appositive should not be set off by commas:

John-Boy’s sister Mary Ellen became a nurse after their brother Ben took a job at a lumber mill.

Because John-Boy has multiple sisters and brothers, the two restrictive appositives make clear which sister and which brother the writer is talking about. In other words, the two appositives are restrictive, and so they are not set off by commas.

D. Four Variations

1. Appositives that Repeat a Noun
Although an appositive usually renames a noun in a sentence, it may instead repeat a noun for the sake of clarity and emphasis:

In America, as in anywhere else in the world, we must find a focus in our lives at an early age, a focus that is beyond the mechanics of earning a living or coping with a household.
(Santha Rama Rau, “An invitation to Serenity”)

Notice that the appositive in this sentence is modified by an adjective clause. Adjectives, prepositional phrases, and adjective clauses (in other words, all of the structures that can modify a noun) are often used to add details to an appositive.

2. Negative Appositives
Most appositives identify what someone or something is, but there are also negative appositives that identify what someone or something is not: Line managers and production employees, rather than staff specialists, are primarily responsible for quality assurance.

Negative appositives begin with a word such as not, never, or rather than.

3. Multiple Appositives
Two, three, or even more appositives may appear alongside the same noun:

Saint Petersburg, a city of almost five-million people, Russia’s second-largest and northernmost metropolis, was designed three centuries ago by Peter the Great.

As long as we don’t overwhelm the reader with too much information at one time, a double or triple appositive can be an effective way of adding supplementary details to a sentence.

4. List Appositives with Pronouns
A final variation is the list appositive that precedes a pronoun such as all or these or everyone:

Streets of yellow row houses, the ochre plaster walls of old churches, the crumbling sea-green mansions now occupied by government offices–all seem in sharper focus, with their defects hidden by the snow.
(Leona P. Schecter, “Moscow”)

The word all is not essential to the meaning of the sentence: the opening list could serve by itself as the subject. However, the pronoun helps to clarify the subject by drawing the items together before the sentence goes on to make a point about them.


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