My friend Mike Goronsky sent me an intriguing Boston Globe article about appositives – The Pause That Annoys: When a Comma Makes Life Needlessly Hard by Jan Freeman. 

Here are three examples (the appositives are in bold):

The berries, which were moldy, went straight into the compost.
My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet.
My sister Enid lets me hold her doll.

An appositive is an explanation or a description. Sometimes it’s set off in a pair of commas. but sometimes it’s not. How do you know when to use the commas?

There are two ways to do it. Both are correct. The first way is to learn a lot of grammar gobbledygook about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

The second way is for someone (me) to remind you that you already know all about appositives – you’ve been using them all your life. You speak English, remember? So you read the sentence aloud and listen to your voice. If it goes down and back up, use the commas.

My friend Jean knows a lot about English.

My friend Jean who knows a lot about English is writing a book.

Did you read them aloud? (Don’t cheat!) If you did, you know that the first sentence doesn’t need commas. The second one does.

My friend Jean knows a lot about English.

My friend Jean, who knows a lot about English, is writing a book.

Start listening to conversations (including yours). You’ll hear this down-and-up pattern all the time. Everyone knows how to do it!

Now I’m going to give you permission to stop reading this post. The Boston Globe article raises an interesting point that I want to talk about. But it’s not a big issue, and you’re welcome to skip this discussion.

* * * * *

Still with me? Good! English is a versatile language that can do amazing things. Take a look at these sentences:

My cousin Jill works in a shop.
My cousin, Bill, works in a hotel.

The first sentence says that you have at least two cousins. The second sentence says that you have only one cousin. There’s no need to say: “I have only one cousin. His name is Bill, and he works in a hotel.” Our amazing language conveys all of that information in just seven words.

Let’s try another pair:

Jane’s cat Geraldine was named for Flip Wilson.
Jane’s dog, Woofer, likes to bark at squirrels.

How many pets does Jane have? One dog, and at least two cats. The brains of native speakers do this all the time, automatically. Nobody taught it to us. We listened and learned.

The Boston Globe article goes on to make an interesting point: sometimes this gets to be a pain. I often travel with my sister. Do you always have to know whether I have one or two sisters? No. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But the language insists that we include that information.

Jan Freeman says that these commas are “a recent fetish,” and she suggests that sometimes we shouldn’t worry about them.

She gives a useful example. John McPhee was writing a book about fishing. He told a story about a man who went fishing with his daughter. Her name was Margaret. So:

Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware.

But now there’s a problem. That sentence makes it seem like Penn had several daughters. What if Margaret was the only girl? You’d have to write the sentence like this:

Penn’s daughter, Margaret, fished in the Delaware.

John McPhee had to spend several hours trying to find out whether there was one daughter – or several. He finally discovered that Margaret indeed had a sister, so version #1 was correct. But is this nitpicking necessary?

I say that we should use our common sense. Sometimes when I talk about those trips with my sister, I don’t have to indicate that there’s another sister! But if I talk about a family get-together, of course it’s relevant that there are three of us.


4 thoughts on “Appositives

  1. Darrell Turner

    I think whether to use the appositive comma in writing may depend on our audience. For example, suppose I wrote this sentence: “My wife Kathy prepared a delicious breakfast for us this morning.” Most readers might have no problem understanding that sentence, but those of a grammatical bent might remark, “I didn’t know that you were a polygamist!”

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    That is a GREAT point – I wish I’d thought of it! I am shamelessly going to steal it, Darrell. (But next time I write about appositives, I will give you credit!) I’m sure we do that with our voices all the time and never even think about it.

  3. Kent Patterson

    Dear Ms. Reynolds. I was introduced to your name today on a website. I just wanted to let you know that, at this stage of my life, I wish I would have taken more interest in my English classes in school so many years ago. I did well in school, but I had more interest in working and cars. I never dreamed I would ever have much use for knowing all that is involved in it’s construction. But now, I have written a trilogy, and know there are many many mistakes in them. And I don’t have the ability to correct them, and not enough money for someone else to correct them all, and everything else that it will need. So, if this letter I’m writing to you would get into some younger person’s hands, it may help them to understand a little better how much the English being taught in school is necessary. Don’t ever think it won’t be useful in the future.

  4. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Kent –
    Congratulations on completing your trilogy! That is an impressive accomplishment, and I hope it will be a huge success.
    Be assured that young writers read these comments, and I’m sure they’ll be inspired by your experience. You’ve explained very clearly and convincingly why language skills are so important. Thanks so much! Jean

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