An appositive is a noun that serves to describe or rename another noun (or pronoun) that appears directly before it in a sentence.
When an appositive is made up of a noun phrase, it is known as an appositive phrase.
Proper nouns as appositives
Appositives that are made up of one noun or more without any determiners or modifiers are almost always proper nouns, which serve to name common nouns that appears before them. For example:
- “Our cat, Scruffles, hates being left home alone.” (The proper noun Scruffles provides a name for the common noun cat.)
- “Your friend Jack is here to see you.” (The proper noun Jack provides a name for the common noun friend.)
- “America’s first president, George Washington, was born in the colony of Virginia.”
Appellations are additional words added to a person’s name, which generally become capitalized as part of the proper noun. Appellations are not considered appositives in their own right, but they can be used as appositives in conjunction with the proper noun. For example:
- “The heir, Prince William, is adored by many.” (The proper noun William with the appellation Prince provides a name for the common noun heir.)
- “Italy was invaded by the conqueror Attila the Hun in 452.” (The proper noun Attila with the appellation the Hun provides a name for the common noun conqueror.)
It is also very common to use noun phrases (which consist of a noun accompanied by any determiners and modifiers) as appositives to provide more descriptive identifying information about a noun; these appositive phrases can modify both common and proper nouns. They usually begin with the articles the, a, and an. For example:
- “The office, an old Georgian building, badly needed repairs.” (In the appositive phrase, the head noun building is modified by the article an and the adjectives old and Georgian.)
- “Janet Smith, a former student of mine, is joining the faculty next spring.” (In the appositive phrase, the head noun student is modified by the article a, the adjective former, and the prepositional phrase of mine.)
- “Just meet me at my car, the old station wagon parked across the street.” (In the appositive phrase, the head compound noun station wagon is modified by the article the, the adjective old, and the participle phrase parked across the street.)
While it is most common to use the articles the, a, and an, we can also use indefinite pronouns (such as one or some) to begin an appositive phrase, as in:
- “My father, one of the toughest lawyers in the state, always wanted me to follow in his footsteps.”
- “The scientists, some of the most respected in their fields, collaborated on a paper on the dangers of climate change.”
Introductory appositive phrases
Appositives most commonly appear directly after the noun they identify, as we have seen in all of the examples so far.
However, we can also place an appositive before a noun when it serves to introduce a sentence. In this case, it does not need to be immediately adjacent to the noun. This adds emphasis to the information the appositive provides. Note that we can only use appositive phrases (as opposed to proper nouns functioning as appositives) at the beginning of sentences. For example:
- “The only one from her class to graduate with honors, Ms. Thomson now runs one of the largest businesses in the world.”
- “A true classic, this book inspired a generation of young readers.”
- “A staunch conservative, the New York senator has promised to reinvigorate industry in her state.”
Restrictive vs. non-restrictive appositives
Appositives that are necessary for the sentence’s meaning are known as restrictive appositives. These are often proper nouns, and they are integrated into the sentence without commas. For example:
- “The popular restaurant Joe’s Place gets thousands of diners a day.”
Without the information the appositive provides, the sentence would be confusing and the reader would not know which restaurant the sentence is referring to. Other times, the sentence would still make logical sense, but the implied meaning changes slightly. Consider, for example, these two sentences:
- “My brother lives in New York.”
- “My brother Michael lives in New York.”
Both sentences make sense. However, in the first example, it is implied that the speaker only has one brother, and he lives in New York. In the second example, it sounds like the speaker has specified his brother’s name because he has more than one brother.
We can also use appositive phrases restrictively when we are making a comparison between two descriptions of the same person. For example:
- “Jeremy Jones the professor has gained much more praise than Jeremy Jones the novelist ever did.”
Appositives that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence are known as non-restrictive appositives. We set non-restrictive appositives apart from the rest of the sentence with commas. For example:
- “Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, was a pilot in the Korean War.”
- “My hometown, Denver, has a fantastic zoo.”
- “A brilliant and eager student, he graduated from college at the age of 19.”
In each of the above sentences, there would be no potential misunderstanding or loss in meaning if the appositives were left out.