LawProse Lesson # 92
What’s the most common syntactical error that lawyers make? ANSWER: It has to do with appositives. Lawyers can’t seem to handle them. They cause problems in both phrasing and punctuation. So what’s an appositive? Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed. 2009) defines it as a word or phrase that points to the same person or thing by a different name, usually with an explanatory phrase that narrows a more general word or phrase. So in the sentence My friend Bekah is going to the seminar, Bekah is the appositive of friend, restricting its sense here to one specific friend. There are two types of appositives — restrictive and nonrestrictive — and they are punctuated differently. A restrictive appositive gives information that is essential to the sentence’s meaning. It is not set off by commas: The artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and taught in Canyon, Texas. The name Georgia O’Keeffe is essential for the reader to know which artist we’re talking about — unless the context had earlier cued us to her identity. One signal that an appositive may be restrictive is having the definite article precede the noun, as in The football star Peyton Manning carried the team to victory. But that signal is not infallible. Consider: My favorite restaurant is Fearing’s. The chef, Dean Fearing, has been a celebrity chef in Dallas for many years. Here, the chef is the main information; his name adds content but could be omitted without creating confusion. A nonrestrictive appositive gives merely additional information and can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning: John Owen, an Arizona native, lost the Republican primary. The appositive an Arizona native is incidental to the fact that John Owen lost. Generally, a pair of commas (or sometimes parentheses or dashes) must frame an appositive that is nonrestrictive: The central constitutional right in this case, freedom of speech, hasn’t been violated (or: The central constitutional right in this case — freedom of speech — hasn’t been violated). But emphatic appositives are never set off by commas: He himself takes responsibility for the damage to the boat. An appositive should match its noun in part of speech and number. Don’t use a noun appositive after a possessive (Mr. Simmons’s, the building janitor, actions [read The actions of Mr. Simmons, the building janitor,] saved her life). And don’t use a singular noun with a plural appositive (The state involved, Indiana and Ohio, determines [read The states involved, Indiana and Ohio, determine] those legal issues by statute). Sources: Garner’s Modern American Usage 56-57 (3d ed. 2009). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 6-7; 145-46 (2d ed. 2006).