Appositive Phrases: What Are They and How Are They Used?

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We use appositive phrases in formal, business, and legal writing to describe or clarify a sentence. They’re very useful and provide essential information sometimes.

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

So, how do you use appositives anyway? Let’s dive in to find out!

(Prefer to watch this lesson on video? Here’s our full length tutorial on “Appositive Phrases”):

‘Appositive Phrases in English’:

What Are Appositive Phrases?

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

To start, let’s recall some vocabulary.

As an intermediate to advanced speaker, you know what it means when something is in opposition to something else.

Exact definition: to be in contrast or in conflict with something (opposite).

But do you know what it means to be in apposition?

Apposition means to be close or side-by-side with something. And, in grammar, it’s the term we use to describe a phrase that clarifies or provides further information about a noun within a sentence.

Note: The word appose is rarely (if ever) used outside these contexts: historical discussion, science, or grammar. It’s an old word that speakers phased out over time. The closest term still used is juxtapose which means to put something close together for comparison.

Appositive Examples

  • Catherine Purser, a partner at Smith, Rogers, & Purser, is an experienced trial attorney.

This sentence says Catherine Purser is an experienced trial attorney. A partner at Smith, Rogers, & Purser is an appositive phrase that provides additional information about Catherine Purser.

  • The central processing plant, our headquarters, is located in Hartford, Connecticut.

We can use an appositive with any noun, including complex and non-proper nouns. This sentence describes the location of a processing plant. Our headquarters is an appositive that further describes and identifies the plant.

  • My longtime co-worker and friend, Juan Carlos, was also my best man at our wedding.

My longtime co-worker and friend was also my best man at our wedding is correct on its own. Naming Juan Carlos is supplemental information and an appositive.

  • My friend John is a doctor.

In this sentence, John is the appositive. But do you notice a difference?

The appositive isn’t separated with commas. That’s because John is essential information in the context of the sentence.

Punctuation with appositives can be tricky if you don’t know the rules, so let’s explore that further.

Appositive Punctuation

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There are two types of appositive phrases: essential and nonessential. The type of appositive phrase will determine whether to use a comma or not.

Nonessential appositive phrases are not necessary for a sentence to be grammatically and contextually correct. They add supplemental information or rename a noun for effect. Always separate them with a comma.

If the phrase comes at the end of a sentence, precede it with a comma.

Nonessential Appositive Examples

  • Known as a famous Roman historian, Livy was born in Patavium in 59 BC.
    • Livy, a famous roman historian, was born in Patavium in 59 BC.
      • But most of the accounts were recorded by Livy, a famous Roman historian.

Notice how the comma separates the appositive in each sentence no matter the position of the phrase.

Though not as common, you may also see other forms of punctuation, like an em dash or parentheses, used to separate a nonessential appositive phrase. As in:

  • But most of the accounts were recorded by Livy—a famous Roman historian.
    • But most of the accounts were recorded by Livy (a famous Roman historian).

Both forms are correct.

Essential Appositive Examples

To understand essential appositive phrases let’s start with a base example:

  • The international businessman Bill Gates is also known for his philanthropy.

The sentence “The international businessman is also known for his philanthropy.” is grammatically correct on its own. But remember that correct grammar is not a test for separating an appositive phrase with a comma.

There are thousands of international business people in the world. And a large number of them are known for their philanthropy (promotion of good welfare of others and charity). Therefore, Bill Gates is essential in context and does not require a comma.

Notice if you switch the order of the sentence, some of the information becomes nonessential. Therefore, you would separate it with a comma.

  • Bill Gates, the international businessman, is also known for his philanthropy.

Lastly, you can create an appositive sentence using essential appositive phrases as in this example.

  • Bill Gates the charitable philanthropist is a different person from Bill Gates the international businessman.

Without the appositive phrases, this sentence reads, “Bill Gates is a different person from Bill Gates.”

Therefore, both appositive phrases are essential and require no commas. We wouldn’t understand the two qualities of the same person without the appositives.

Here are a few more examples of essential appositive phrases:

  • My friend Ryan knows a good doctor in Milan.
  • My co-worker Gary owes me $20 from our lunch last week.

Both examples require a name for context because the speaker has many friends and co-workers. It’s necessary to identify which one knows a good doctor and owes him/her $20.

By recognizing the two types of appositives, you should have a clear understanding of how to use them in your writing. Remember, essential appositives do not require punctuation and nonessential appositive phrases do.

Conclusion

With these examples, you can confidently use them in your own writing. If you need a reference, please bookmark this page. And if you have any thoughts on the subject, leave a comment below!

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