An appositive is the name given to a special noun or pronoun that’s placed near another noun or pronoun to identify, clarify, or explain it. Apposition, which is what we call the grammatical construction containing an appositive, gets its name from the Latin words ad (“near”) and positio (“placement”).
Here are a few examples of appositives (the noun or pronoun is blue, the appositive is orange).
In Example 1, we have a noun (“sister”) and an appositive (“Cathy”), which identifies the noun.
In Example 2, there’s a modified noun (“friend’s motorbike”) with an appositive (“green Honda”), which provides more information about the modified noun. Note that both the noun and appositive can appear with modifiers.
In Example 3, we again have a noun (“anyone”), and an appositive is used to strengthen the phrase.
Let’s give a few more examples, showing that appositives don’t always have to come after the words or phrases they identify, clarify, or explain. As Example 4 and Example 5 show, appositives can precede their counterpart nouns or pronouns.
When the identifying information in an appositive is crucial for understanding a sentence, you can simply leave the appositive alone. That is to say, you don’t need to separate it off using commas.
As a case in point:
Clearly, the appositive (“Alexander Hamilton”) is essential for understanding the sentence, and so we don’t need to place commas around it. If you’re unsure about why this is, imagine removing the appositive. Do you see that this would immediately make the sentence unclear? In particular, without the appositive, we don’t know which Founding Father we’re talking about. Therefore, the commas are unnecessary.
In Example 7, the appositive is not crucial for the meaning of the sentence, and so we place commas around it. Imagine if the appositive wasn’t there, then we would have: “Alexander Hamilton wrote many impressive works.” Evidently, the clarifying information provided by the appositive isn’t essential, and so we’ll use commas.
Finally, the two appositives in Example 8 are again crucial for the meaning of the sentence, and so we don’t use commas. If the appositives weren’t there, the sentence would read: “Alexander Hamilton was quite different from Alexander Hamilton”. Therefore, the appositives are essential for understanding what attributes of Alexander Hamilton we’re comparing, and so commas aren’t necessary.
In our article on the Oxford comma, we found that some writers avoid this approach to punctuating their lists because – in special cases – it’s easy to confuse one of the list items for an appositive.
To explain this, let’s give some examples:
Clearly, Example 1 and Example 2 show exactly the same sentence. However, as indicated by the colouring, each one can be interpreted as having a different meaning, depending on how you read it.
In Example 1, if we read the orange comma as an Oxford comma, then clearly this sentence is just a list of items. The writer is saying that they had lunch with three different people: first, their father; second, Barrack Obama; and third, the Prime Minister of Switzerland. If you’re unsure about what the Oxford comma is, check out our explanation.
However, as Example 2 shows, we can also read the sentence as an appositive phrase. In this case, the writer appears to be saying that they had lunch with only two different people: first, their father, who is also Barrack Obama; and second, the Prime Minister of Switzerland.
While this highlights an important weakness of the Oxford comma, it’s worth noting it’s not all that bad! In fact, many writers use the Oxford comma all the time, recognising that – in virtually every case – the reader will use the context to determine where an appositive phrase has been used.