Are You Making this Common Mistake with Appositives?

An appositive is a modifier. It’s a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows another noun or noun phrase to further define it. You probably use appositives all the time without even realizing it. But are you punctuating them correctly?

Why am I devoting a blog to appositives? I’m so glad you asked!

Learning how to punctuate appositives—most often done with commas but sometimes with parentheses—isn’t difficult, but I see incorrect examples almost every day. The sad thing is that so many of this common appositive punctuation mistakes show up in Amazon book descriptions, websites, book reviews, and pretty much anywhere you find the written word.

Punctuating appositive nouns and phrases is easy once you understand the rules. Click To Tweet

So let’s review definitions, and then I’ll show you how easy it is to correctly punctuate whenever you use an appositive in your writing.

What Is an Appositive?

As a reminder, an appositive is a noun or noun phrase that provides additional information. Like other types of modifiers, an appositive can be essential (restrictive) or nonessential (nonrestrictive) to the sentence. Removing an essential modifier may cause confusion, but removing a nonessential one still leaves most of the meaning intact.

Essential: My cockatoo Snowflake attacked my computer.

Nonessential: My cockatoo, Snowflake, attacked my computer.

Snowflake’s handiwork the day she decided I was working too much.
Snowflake the Cockatoo

What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

If I had more than one cockatoo, I wouldn’t use a comma—I’d want to make it clear that I’m discussing Snowflake and not another bird. I’m specifically throwing “Snowflake” under the bus (she deserves it, don’t you think?). If I delete her name (the essential modifier), I remove the clue that tells you which bird was the culprit, so I could be referring to one of several birds.

The second example is the one I personally would use because I only have one cockatoo, and her name is Snowflake. If I delete the appositive (her name), which is a nonessential modifier, you still know my only pet cockatoo created some trouble.

A good test is to use names of people you know. In this example, the writer has two daughters, so which example is correct?

My daughter Mary is ten years old

My daughter, Mary, is ten years old.

Answer: the first. The writer has another daughter, so removing the essential phrase in the second example creates confusion: “My daughter is ten years old” … but which daughter?

Appositives and Titles

The same principle applies when a proper name follows a descriptive title.

“Freelance editor, Candace Johnson, is writing this blog” is incorrect. Why? Remove my name and the sentence is confusing. No commas needed here: Freelance editor Candace Johnson is the noun phrase that is the subject of this sentence.

“Candace Johnson, freelance editor, is writing this blog” is correctly punctuated because “freelance editor” is not essential to the sentence’s meaning.

Here’s another example taken from something I read recently:

“The science fiction author, Philip Dick, may have said it best.”

You see the problem, right? By removing what the writer thought was an appositive (Philip Dick’s name), the sentence makes no sense. Correctly punctuated, this sentence should read,

“The science fiction author Philip Dick may have said it best.”

How to Avoid Appositive Confusion

When you’re writing an appositive noun or phrase, always ask yourself if removing the information between the commas creates confusion.

Remember: if a word or phrase is essential or restrictive, meaning that it provides essential information about the noun or noun phrase it refers to, don’t use commas.

Now it’s your turn: which of the following sentences are correctly punctuated?

  1. Thanks to my fiancé Mark Jones for his support while I wrote this book. (She has not been previously engaged.)
  2. Actress Kate Hudson recalled one of her favorite memories from giving birth to her son, Bingham. (She has two sons.)
  3. Speaker, author, and consultant, Mary Smith, is revolutionizing hair care.
  4. My favorite pie, cherry, is out of stock.

Answers:

  1. Mark Jones is the writers only fiancé, so use commas before and after his name.
  2. Kate Hudson has two sons, so no comma.
  3. Mary Smith is a speaker, author, and consultant, so no commas before or after her name (but the Oxford commas after “speaker” and “author” are correct).
  4. My favorite pie is out of stock whether I name it or not, so use commas.

Do you have questions about the correct way to punctuate an appositive, perhaps in your book’s acknowledgments or in a blog? Please post them in the comments, and let’s work together to make your writing shine.

Happy Writing, Candace

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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, and writing coach for fiction and nonfiction. She works with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. Learn more at her website https://changeitupediting.com, and follow her on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

26 thoughts on “Are You Making this Common Mistake with Appositives?”

        1. Comma happy—that makes me laugh because it’s true for so many people! I think commas are one of the hardest things to get right, especially when writing fiction.

  1. Bing! Epiphany. Thank you! I,Tam Francis, get it. Commas if you can throw it out, no commas if its essential. Yup, I’ve been doing this a little wrong.

    So, here’s another question. If everyone gets this wrong, who is the reader who knows it’s wrong? Besides us, now. LOL 😉

    1. Ah, great question, Tam. Actually, even though lots of people make mistakes with punctuating restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, not everyone gets this wrong. It’s just a matter of learning the “why” behind the rule. And now you’re one of them!

  2. Wow, you taught me what I didn’t know here. I thought I knew all about commas. Thank you! Come to think of it, though, I used to tell my first and second graders that commas are like tractor shovels. If you don’t need the words inside the commas, it’s like the shovels are there to scoop them out!
    Barbara Purdy Leiker (co-alumni SMHS)

  3. I love that description, Barbara, and it’s easy to remember! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    1. I’m happy to provide brain-branding material any time, Phillip. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    1. And congratulations on attempting the 52 short stories in 52 weeks challenge! I’m looking forward to reading them.

  4. Great refresher, indeed. I’d actually forgotten the rule and was pulling out commas or putting them in primarily based on what “sounded” right, which works most of the time, but isn’t the best approach (I need a sentence diagramming refresher after 40 years or so, too, I think, ;)). Thanks so much, and I will now look for this issue a bit more consciously.

  5. Interesting post. Commas, in all their uses, are my nemesis. My writing group is constantly teasing me about them. However, I have been getting better. This post was very helpful. Thank you.

  6. Nicely done! I happen to love commas, but I love to take them out when not needed, also. Most of my creative writing students have nightmares about commas. They just don’t know that they’re messing up with appositives. 🙂

    1. I think commas trick people because there are prescriptive grammar rules but also descriptive grammar reasons for breaking those rules, especially in fiction. Appositives, though, don’t lend themselves to creativity, only to confusion. I’m glad you enjoyed this post, and thanks so much for commenting! Hope you’ll visit again soon.

  7. Hi,
    I’d like to know if the following sentences are correct:
    Mary returned to her car and called her boyfriend, Lucas.
    The phone rang. It was her boyfriend. Lucas.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Haydee,
      Your first sentence is correct because “Lucas” is further defining “her boyfriend.” The second example is technically correct and fine as a standalone sentence, but if it closely follows the first, you could delete either “her boyfriend” or “Lucas” because it feels a bit redundant. Thanks for stopping by and asking a great question.

  8. Hi Candace,

    Thank you very much for your prompt and helpful reply.

    The last sentence was supposed to be: It was her boyfriend, Lucas. Sorry, I mistyped the period–I couldn’t tell what I was typing. And to clarify, the sentences aren’t close to each other. I just wanted to know if the boyfriend example was like the cockatoo example you used, not that boyfriends are like cockatoos– cockatoos are mostly monogamous.
    If you don’t mind, I’d also like to ask you about the word “then” used as a coordinating conjunction. As far as I know, “then”doesn’t serve that function, but I’ve seen people using it that way. These are some of the examples I’ve come across recently:
    He walked into an alley, then into a building.
    She combed her hair, then looked out the window.
    He scolded her dog, then apologized to her friends.

    I’d probably put an “and” before then, but even then, it souds a bit funny to me.

    Thank you so much for your time.

    1. Haydee, As you probably suspect, “then” isn’t a coordinating conjunction, and although many writers use it that way, while I’m okay with it in fiction (particularly in dialog) I’m not okay with it in formal writing. You’re correct that the comma is substituting for “and.” This doesn’t mean it isn’t used … a LOT. I see it all the time.

      Here’s an excellent discussion by a colleague of mine: https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wc/do-this-then-do-that-coordinating-then-usage/

      I hope that answers your question, and thanks again for stopping by.

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