Grammar 6 min read

Appositive: a Guide to Using Appositions in Writing

Main Takeaways:

  • Appositives are nouns or noun phrases that identify the nouns directly preceding them.
  • Appositives can be a single word or a several-word phrase.
  • The two types of appositives are restrictive and nonrestrictive.
  • Restrictive appositives are essential to the meaning of the sentence.
  • Nonrestrictive appositives are not essential and are offset by commas or parentheses.

The word appositive sounds like a happy term, and for a good reason. When you want to spice up your writing or add extra information, appositives do the trick. But are you using them correctly? Should they have commas or not? We’ve got answers and examples to spare, and they’re all right here.

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What is an Appositive?

Appositives are either nouns or noun phrases used to rename or identify the nouns directly preceding them. They may be a single word or several words, but the intent is the same.
The car, a bright red convertible, zoomed through the intersection.
The dermatologist, Dr. Miller, looked me over from head to toe.
My cousin, a gymnast, won silver at the Rio Olympics.
Our friend Bob is known for his bad jokes.
We use an appositive noun or noun phrase to define or identify further a noun or a noun phrase that precedes it. In the image above, the appositive phrase
We use an appositive noun or noun phrase to define or identify further a noun or a noun phrase that precedes it. In the image above, the appositive phrase “my dog” defines who “Dexter” is.

In some instances, appositives may come before the nouns they used to identify rather than after them.

The only teacher with tenure, Professor Robinson was as much a fixture on campus as the fountain in the quad.
Made of Pernambuco wood, the violin bow was practically priceless.

In each of these cases, the appositives offer additional information about the noun or pronoun that they describe. Without appositives, we wouldn’t know that Professor Robinson is the only teacher with tenure. Also, we wouldn’t know that the car zooming through the intersection was a bright red convertible.

Apposition Definition

Apposition describes the relationship of the appositive noun or noun phrase to the noun or noun phrase it’s describing.
My cat, Bengal, is bigger than you might expect.

In that sentence, “my cat” is in apposition to “Bengal,” as “my cat” is describing or defining what “Bengal” is.

What are the Two Types of Appositives?

Appositives can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. You can quickly tell the difference by looking at how the sentence is punctuated. In most cases, they’re offset by commas. This happens because the extra information is a nonrestrictive clause. Meaning, it’s interesting but not essential to the sentence. If you remove it, the author’s original meaning will still be intact.

Gordon Ramsay, a Michelin-star chef, is known for turning around failing restaurants.

The fact that Gordon Ramsay is known for turning around failing restaurants is true, whether or not we also know he’s a Michelin-star chef. Therefore, the Michelin-star clause is a bonus rather than being essential. The correct structure here is to offset the appositive (a Michelin-star chef) with commas.

Nonrestrictive appositives can also come at the end of a sentence. In that case, you would use a single comma just before the appositives or appositive phrases, and a period in the end.

They have a reservation at Barbuto, a legendary restaurant in NYC.

In some cases, an appositive is necessary to the sentence. So, it becomes restrictive. Because it can’t be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, the appositive is not offset by commas.

The basketball player Lebron James is making a special appearance this weekend.

“Lebron James” is restrictive, because without it, we wouldn’t know which basketball player is making that special appearance.

What is an Example of an Appositive Phrase?

Remember, appositives can be either a single word or a multi-word phrase. For instance, you could describe your boss by her name, Jenny, or describe her as an award-winning journalist. The first is a single-word appositive, while the second would be considered an appositive phrase.

Here are a few more examples of appositive phrases:

Georgia’s birds, Tweet and Chirp, love it when she puts on the Nature Channel.
My journal, a sparkly blue book, holds all my secrets.
I was so excited to see his movie, an independent film about skateboarding.

Punctuating Appositives

It’s important to punctuate appositives correctly. Without commas in the right place, your sentence could lose its meaning or convey an entirely different message than the one you intended.

Always use commas or parentheses to offset nonrestrictive appositives. If you’re not sure whether the word or phrase is nonrestrictive, ask yourself if it’s essential to the sentence. Essential appositives eat the commas, so there are none left. Non-essential appositives need commas—N and N go together!

Your teacher, Ms. Lu, wants to see you after class.
Your teacher Ms. Lu wants to see you after class.

Without the appositive phrase “Ms. Lu” in the sentence, you would have no idea which teacher wants to see you after class. The phrase is essential, or restrictive, so no commas are necessary.

Rachel who works for Bloomingdale’s is madly in love with Ross.
Rachel, who works for Bloomingdale’s, is madly in love with Ross.

It’s a nice little tidbit to learn that Rachel is an employee of Bloomingdale’s, but that doesn’t change who she’s in love with. It’s fun information, but not essential. That makes it a nonrestrictive phrase, and we know to offset it with commas.

You can also offset nonrestrictive appositives in other ways if the alternatives suit your style and purpose.

My sister-in-law, a dedicated middle-school principal, often works long hours.
My sister-in-law—a dedicated middle-school principal—often work long hours.
My sister-in-law (a dedicated middle-school principal) often work long hours.

Appositives are a simple way to infuse your writing with color and interest. However, that’s the case if you handle them properly. Pay attention to sentence structure, double-check your punctuation, and ensure your meaning stays intact no matter what.

Read More: Run-on Sentence: What is it and how to fix it

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Krista Grace Morris

Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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