An appositive is a modifier. It’s a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows another noun or noun phrase to further define it. You probably use appositives all the time without even realizing it. But are you punctuating them correctly?
Why am I devoting a blog to appositives? I’m so glad you asked!
Learning how to punctuate appositives—most often done with commas but sometimes with parentheses—isn’t difficult, but I see incorrect examples almost every day. The sad thing is that so many of this common appositive punctuation mistakes show up in Amazon book descriptions, websites, book reviews, and pretty much anywhere you find the written word.
So let’s review definitions, and then I’ll show you how easy it is to correctly punctuate whenever you use an appositive in your writing.
What Is an Appositive?
As a reminder, an appositive is a noun or noun phrase that provides additional information. Like other types of modifiers, an appositive can be essential (restrictive) or nonessential (nonrestrictive) to the sentence. Removing an essential modifier may cause confusion, but removing a nonessential one still leaves most of the meaning intact.
Essential: My cockatoo Snowflake attacked my computer.
Nonessential: My cockatoo, Snowflake, attacked my computer.
What’s the difference, and why does it matter?
If I had more than one cockatoo, I wouldn’t use a comma—I’d want to make it clear that I’m discussing Snowflake and not another bird. I’m specifically throwing “Snowflake” under the bus (she deserves it, don’t you think?). If I delete her name (the essential modifier), I remove the clue that tells you which bird was the culprit, so I could be referring to one of several birds.
The second example is the one I personally would use because I only have one cockatoo, and her name is Snowflake. If I delete the appositive (her name), which is a nonessential modifier, you still know my only pet cockatoo created some trouble.
A good test is to use names of people you know. In this example, the writer has two daughters, so which example is correct?
My daughter Mary is ten years old
My daughter, Mary, is ten years old.
Answer: the first. The writer has another daughter, so removing the essential phrase in the second example creates confusion: “My daughter is ten years old” … but which daughter?
Appositives and Titles
The same principle applies when a proper name follows a descriptive title.
“Freelance editor, Candace Johnson, is writing this blog” is incorrect. Why? Remove my name and the sentence is confusing. No commas needed here: “Freelance editor Candace Johnson” is the noun phrase that is the subject of this sentence.
“Candace Johnson, freelance editor, is writing this blog” is correctly punctuated because “freelance editor” is not essential to the sentence’s meaning.
Here’s another example taken from something I read recently:
“The science fiction author, Philip Dick, may have said it best.”
You see the problem, right? By removing what the writer thought was an appositive (Philip Dick’s name), the sentence makes no sense. Correctly punctuated, this sentence should read,
“The science fiction author Philip Dick may have said it best.”
How to Avoid Appositive Confusion
When you’re writing an appositive noun or phrase, always ask yourself if removing the information between the commas creates confusion.
Remember: if a word or phrase is essential or restrictive, meaning that it provides essential information about the noun or noun phrase it refers to, don’t use commas.
Now it’s your turn: which of the following sentences are correctly punctuated?
- Thanks to my fiancé Mark Jones for his support while I wrote this book. (She has not been previously engaged.)
- Actress Kate Hudson recalled one of her favorite memories from giving birth to her son, Bingham. (She has two sons.)
- Speaker, author, and consultant, Mary Smith, is revolutionizing hair care.
- My favorite pie, cherry, is out of stock.
- Mark Jones is the writers only fiancé, so use commas before and after his name.
- Kate Hudson has two sons, so no comma.
- Mary Smith is a speaker, author, and consultant, so no commas before or after her name (but the Oxford commas after “speaker” and “author” are correct).
- My favorite pie is out of stock whether I name it or not, so use commas.
Do you have questions about the correct way to punctuate an appositive, perhaps in your book’s acknowledgments or in a blog? Please post them in the comments, and let’s work together to make your writing shine.
Happy Writing, Candace
Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, and writing coach for fiction and nonfiction. She works with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. Learn more at her website https://changeitupediting.com, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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