Restrictive Appositives

A Bad Case of Comma Confusion

Are you mishandling restrictive appositives? (The plain language is coming; bear with me for a moment.) Don’t feel bad: this is one of those problems that has swept the country like a plague of locusts. The situation is so bad you can even hear restrictive appositives being abused, on National Public Radio for one (there’s a telltale pause that indicates a comma where there should be none).

Appositive is a fancy term for a word or phrase that pretty much restates the word or phrase that comes just before it. Here’s an example:

Her cat, Mumford, loves broccoli.

“Mumford,” the cat’s name, is a restatement; it’s added information (just as “the cat’s name” is in this sentence). I actually knew a cat who loved broccoli, by the way. You couldn’t leave him alone in a room with it if you wanted it for yourself.

Oftentimes an appositive can be dropped without compromising your meaning. That makes the word or phrase parenthetical. mumfordThat is, it could be put inside parentheses as an aside or even dropped entirely, as with the sentence above: Her cat loves broccoli is perfectly clear. To signal the parenthetical nature of the information, you set it off by placing a comma on either side. Think of the pair of commas as parentheses lite. Real parentheses are overkill in cases like this; they would interrupt the flow of your sentence.

Now, an appositive is sometimes “restrictive.” That is, it restricts the meaning of what comes before it by providing essential, defining information. The sentence just wouldn’t be the same without it. It’s not parenthetical, so it’s not bracketed by commas. With some context, the cat’s name in our example sentence might be restrictive:

Julia has ten cats. Yes, she’s well on her way to an unwelcome visit from the health department. Anyway, her cat Mumford loves broccoli.

Here, you’re talking about ten cats. If you were to write Her cat loves broccoli, the reader wouldn’t know which cat. Suddenly “Mumford” has become defining information: it’s a restrictive appositive and you need to drop those commas.

A few more examples:

Wrong: Author, Joe Smith, will read from his latest book tonight.

Right: Author Joe Smith will read from his latest book tonight.

In the absence of any other defining information for “author” in the second example, the name is a restrictive appositive. Take it away, as you can with a regular appositive, and you can see that: Author will read from his latest book tonight. That makes no sense, obviously.

Wrong: Aardvark expert, Jane Doe, is now available for speaking engagements.

Right: Aardvark expert Jane Doe is now available for speaking engagements.

Right: The world’s leading aardvark expert, Jane Doe, is now available for speaking engagements.

With “aardvark expert” defined by “the world’s leading,” you don’t need the name. This is easy to see if you drop it from the sentence: The world’s leading aardvark expert is now available for speaking engagements. That reads just fine.

I hope this tutorial has been helpful!