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What are they?

An appositive is a noun, noun phrase or pronoun that is next to a noun or pronoun to rename it. In other words, it identifies or explains it with additional information. One can consist of a short string of words or a long string. Most appositives contain modifiers, or adjectives. They differ from relative (defining) clauses in that the string of words that provides additional information does not contain a relative pronoun. The omission of the relative pronoun can help keep your writing free of clutter. Appositives are either restrictive (essential) or non-restrictive (non-essential). Keep in mind that appositives can apply to any noun, noun phrase or pronoun within a sentence, not only to those that are the subjects of sentences.

Restrictive appositives

When the noun or noun phrase to which an appositive refers is too general, the appositive is often necessary for the meaning of the sentence to remain clear. When this is true, it is a restrictive appositive. This type of appositive does not require offsetting commas. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: The long-time U.S. senator Ted Kennedy was known for his oratorical skills and his charisma.

In Example 1, “Ted Kennedy” is the appositive. “The long-time U.S. senator” is the noun phrase which is identified by the appositive. It is restrictive because the noun phrase is too general; there are many U.S. senators in the history of the U.S. Senate. Without the appositive, it is unknown to which of the many senators the sentence refers. Therefore, “Ted Kennedy” is a restrictive appositive.

Example 2: The novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was a great read.

In Example 2, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the appositive, and it is restrictive because it identifies to which novel the sentence refers. Your readers would not know which book you are saying was a great read without the appositive.

Non-restrictive appositives

When the appositive contains non-essential information to the sentence, it is non-restrictive. The information in the appositive provides additional meaning to the noun or noun phrase it follows. Non-restrictive appositives are offset with commas. Consider the examples from above with the noun/noun phrases and the appositive in alternate places:

Example 3: Ted Kennedy, a long-time U.S. senator, was known for his oratorical skills and his charisma.

Example 4: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a novel, was a great read.

In both of the examples above, the appositives (a long-time U.S. senator, a novel) are offset with commas. They are non-essential to the meaning of the sentence because the nouns (Ted Kennedy, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) are specific enough that they provide enough information for the sentence to retain its meaning. You could easily remove the appositives without hurting the sentence’s meaning.

Placement in sentences

Appositives usually immediately follow the noun, noun phrase or pronoun they identify or explain, but they can also precede one. When you are looking to add a special emphasis, appositives can even appear at the end of the sentence, with the noun or noun phrase appearing earlier in the sentence. When an appositive is used at the end of a sentence to place emphasis on it, it is usually preceded by a dash. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: Starbucks, one of the best places for coffee in town, is always busy.

Example 2: One of the best places for coffee in town, Starbucks is always busy.

Example 3: My favorite place for coffee is the busiest place in town – Starbucks.

Different ways to use them

Appositives are used in several different ways within sentences. All of the above examples use appositives as noun replacements, or strings of words that identify or provide additional details about the noun or noun phrase they follow. They are also used to repeat nouns with additional information included to provide clarity or emphasis, or they are used as negative, multiple or list appositives. Consider the following examples:

Noun repetition: Time management is essential for success as a freelance writer, success that translates into higher earnings and more assignments.

“Success” is repeated at the end of the sentence and is expanded with additional information.

Negatives appositive: Nurses, not doctors, are the ones who spend the most time with patients addressing their needs and fears.

The appositive “not doctors” is negative; negative appositives show what someone or something is not. They are usually started with “not,” “never” or “rather than.”

Multiple appositives: The Great Depression, a time of great strife for many Americans, one of the nation’s toughest non-military challenges, affected many of those who lived through it for the rest of their lives.

The appositives “a time of great strife for many Americans” and “one of the nation’s toughest non-military challenges” both provide more information about the noun (The Great Depression). Multiple appositives are useful when you need to add more supplementary information to a sentence. However, use caution to avoid confusing your readers. You could also use “and” in place of the comma to create only one longer appositive. To provide emphasis or clarity, you could also offset the double appositive (or any appositive with commas in it) with dashes.

List appositives: Cooking utensils, firewood, sleeping bags, tents – all of these items are essential for an overnight camping trip.

The appositives are in a list (cooking utensils, firewood, sleeping bags, tents). The use of “all,” a pronoun in this case, groups all the items in the list together to provide clarity. After the pronoun, the rest of the sentence makes a statement about the appositives. The dash is used to provide a distinct separation between the list with commas and the pronoun to which the appositive list applies.