Thursday, January 13, 2011

Appositives: Quick Lesson From the Style Guide

An appositive is a noun or pronoun (or a noun or pronoun phrase) set beside another noun or pronoun. Appositives are modifiers, and like all good modifiers, go next to the words they modify. An appositive must match in number/case/etc. the word with which it is in apposition.

Example: Her car, a battered green wagon, leaked oil in my driveway.

Appositives are generally surrounded by commas unless they are very short essential phrases, as in “My sister Trudy won the lottery.”

Trudy is the appositive, and because it's short and essential, it requires no commas.

Do we all understand what is meant by "essential" there? An essential modifier is one that is necessary for the sentence to make sense. Think of it this way. Because there's no comma before or after the appositive Trudy, we know that there must be more than one sister. The speaker is distinguishing between her sister Trudy who won the lottery and her sister Elaine who did not. If she had only one sister, and that sister's name was Trudy, then she could leave the name out of the sentence without changing its meaning.

In other words:

If the speaker has only one sister, then
My sister won the lottery
My sister, Trudy, won the lottery
mean the same thing.

If the speaker has more than one sister, then
My sister won the lottery
My sister Trudy won the lottery
don't mean the same thing. The first sentence could refer to a different sister.

So the commas can change the meaning of the sentence, and that's why punctuation is important for appositives. It's not just for readability, but also for meaning.



Author Guy said...

Unfortunately lots of people would add the sister's name even if they only had one sister.

Edittorrent said...

True. But maybe if they read this post, it'll help them think about what they're doing. One hopes. :)


Kate Kyle said...

Thanks, Theresa. Very informative post. It will help me think what I'm doing with appositives :)

Wes said...

Thanks. Very helpful. I did not know the term or how they were used.