Using Appositive Words, Phrases and Clauses in English
An appositive is a word, phrase or clause that is used in juxtaposition to a noun or pronoun to identify, explain or describe that noun or pronoun. The appositive is itself a noun or pronoun and it often consists of other modifiers as well. Appositional constructions can be most useful for scholars who are reporting academic or scientific research because they provide a concise and effective way in which to offer the extra detail often required when describing experimental procedures, analysing complicated data and outlining complex arguments. Yet appositives can only clearly communicate this vital information to readers if they are used correctly, so this article offers some practical advice on using appositional constructions.
An appositive must always be placed immediately before or after the noun or pronoun it modifies. ‘Your colleague Mable is a clever woman’ and ‘The medieval poet Dante wrote the Divine Comedy’ both place the appositive in its most common position – after the noun. ‘Mable’ is in apposition with the subject ‘colleague’ in the first example, and ‘Dante’ is in apposition with the subject ‘medieval poet’ in the second. As these examples imply, appositional structures are often used to provide specific names after more general nouns, but the name can also appear first. ‘Mable, your colleague, is a clever woman’ and ‘Dante, the medieval poet, wrote the Divine Comedy’ are equally correct. The inversion means that the subject has changed in each case, however, so ‘your colleague’ is now in apposition with the subject ‘Mable,’ and ‘the medieval poet’ is the appositive in relation to the subject ‘Dante.’
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You may have noticed that my first two examples above do not contain commas, but the inverted examples do. This is because the appositives in the first two examples are essential to the meaning of the sentence and therefore restrictive. Reading those sentences without their appositive names makes this clear: ‘Your colleague is a clever woman’ and ‘The medieval poet wrote the Divine Comedy.’ The grammar is sound, but the reader has no idea which colleague or which poet is intended unless that reader has inside information about the author’s colleagues or Italian literature. The appositives are therefore necessary and require no punctuation. In the inverted examples the subjects are named at once, so the appositives are no longer essential, as reading the sentences without them demonstrates: ‘Mable is a clever woman’ and ‘Dante wrote the Divine Comedy’ make it clear exactly who is intended in each case. Although the appositives provide additional information, they are not essential and should be surrounded with commas. An exception to this punctuation pattern is presented when an appositive phrase is considered part of a name, so although ‘Fred, the architect from the shop, drew the plans’ is correct with commas around the appositive, ‘Fred the architect drew the plans’ is correct without them.
Appositives of all kinds can be used in scholarly prose to provide brief descriptions of experimental conditions, explanations of expertise, instances of intellectual progress and so much more. The following sentences provide only a few of many possibilities:
• ‘G17, the group with the smallest number of participants, was tested first.’
• ‘Jones, an expert in cardiology, examined the patient.’
• ‘Wilson’s findings, amazing results by any standard, changed the discipline.’
However you choose to use appositives, remember that it is always essential to ensure that the appositive agrees with the subject. ‘Wilson’s findings, an amazing result by any standard, changed the discipline’ may make sense to readers, but, grammatically speaking, it is not the best choice because ‘findings’ is plural, whereas ‘result’ is singular.
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