LawProse Lesson #270: A refresher on appositives.
An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that further describes or identifies another noun or noun phrase that immediately precedes it. Take this sentence: “Travis Barnhill, the company’s CEO, spoke to the media about the merger.” The phrase the company’s CEO is an appositive of the proper noun Travis Barnhill. Or this: “The dog with the broken leg, Wookie, belonged to the office manager.” Wookie further identifies, by name, the dog with the broken leg. There are two types of appositives: restrictive and nonrestrictive. The examples above contain nonrestrictive appositives—they simply give extra information about the first noun. Both the company’s CEO and Wookie could be removed without seriously detracting from the meaning of the sentence. Hence they’re flanked by commas. A restrictive appositive, by contrast, is necessary to identify or limit the noun it attaches to. It isn’t set off with commas. Take this example: “The seasoned quarterback Steve Young threw a 38-yard pass for a touchdown with eight seconds left in the game.” Steve Young is a restrictive appositive because without it you wouldn’t know which seasoned quarterback was being discussed. And to add commas around Steve Young would suggest there’s only one seasoned quarterback. Here’s another: “Matt’s sister Janie is from Vermont.” If Matt has more than one sister, Janie is necessary (restrictive) to identify which sister is from Vermont. But let’s use this example: “Matt’s wife, Sue, is from Chicago.” Matt has only one wife, so Sue is not essential to the meaning (nonrestrictive); it merely gives additional information about her. Is knowing the difference between a nonrestrictive or restrictive appositive all that important? Yes. It conveys meaning, and it tells you how to punctuate. As you may have seen above, a pair of commas should frame a nonrestrictive appositive. But a restrictive appositive isn’t set off by commas. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Yet many people put the comma before the nonrestrictive appositive but omit the comma after it. Not this: “Travis Barnhill, the company’s CEO spoke to the media about the merger”; or this: “The dog with the broken leg, Wookie belonged to the office manager.” A comma is needed after both CEO and Wookie. Occasionally you’ll see parentheses (to deemphasize) or em-dashes (to emphasize) in place of commas. The same rules apply to those marks. We hope this lesson, our second on appositives, was a helpful refresher. For our first lesson on this topic, which appeared in October 2012, click here. Further reading: Garner’s Modern English Usage 62 (4th ed. 2016). The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation 33, 409–10 (2016). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 1.6, at 6–7, § 1.52(c), at 41, § 10.7, at 176–77 (3d ed. 2013). The Chicago Manual of Style 208, 314–15 (16th ed. 2010).