Using appositives

We all use appositives, which are used to clarify and add information to nouns. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that qualifies a preceding or following noun. Because the noun is the most basic component of language–we are always talking about something or someone–it is important to make sure we use appositives correctly.

Compare the appositive with other words or phrases that describe nouns:

little Emmeline (adjective: little)

Using appositives

Emmeline, who is pretty (adjective clause: who is pretty)
laughing Emmeline (verb phrase: laughing)
my daughter Emmeline (appositive: my daughter)

This post deals with the most common types of appositives: restrictive, non-restrictive, multiple, and negative.

Restrictive appositives

A restrictive appositive limits the noun in a way that is crucial to the meaning of the sentence. The following sentences contain restrictive appositives that follow a noun:

The financier Augustus Melmotte swindled young Montague.

Melmotte rebuked the baronet Felix Carbury for having designs on his daughter.

In each sentence above, the appositive is a person’s name. (Which financier swindled? Melmotte. Which baronet did he rebuke? Carbury.) The appositives give specific information about the people described; thus, they are restrictive.

Note that an appositive can modify any noun in a sentence, not just the subject (Melmotte is the subject in both examples above). Multiple nouns in a sentence can have appositives as well. We can alter the first sentence thus:

The financier Augustus Melmotte swindled the young engineer Montague.

Using appositives

Non-restrictive appositives

A non-restrictive appositive amplifies, modifies, or otherwise adds information about the noun, but it is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. The following sentences contain non-restrictive appositives:

Hänsel und Gretel, a German opera, is often performed in English.

“Release Me”, a cover of a 1947 song, prevented the Beatles from reaching number one with “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”.

In each sentence above, the appositive is the noun phrase immediately after the noun (i.e., the first part of the sentence, preceding the comma). The appositives in these examples are non-restrictive because they modify the noun, but they are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Multiple appositives and negative appositives

Nouns can have more than one appositive. Using multiple appositives provides variation, but be careful to not overdo it. Too many appositives can clutter a sentence and confuse the reader.

The troodon, a dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period, an omnivore with a small bird-like body, may have been a predator like other bipedal dinosaurs.

You can also write a negative appositive. These usually start with words such as not, instead of, and rather than:

School children learn about the sauropod dinosaur called the apatosaurus using its genus name, not the obselete brontosaurus.

Punctuating appositives

You may have gathered from the examples above that a non-restrictive appositive must be set off from the rest of the sentence with comma(s). When the appositive is at the end of the sentence, only one comma is necessary:

My favourite breakfast is congee, a Chinese rice porridge.

Sometimes dashes (i.e., em dashes) can be used instead of commas, especially when using commas would be confusing (for example, if multiple appositives are separated with commas):

Why must so many delicious foods–cheesecake, cheeseburgers with bacon, iced mochaccino with whipped cream, french fries–be so unhealthy?