GMAT Grammar: Appositive Phrases

Friends, Romans, countrymen: It is time to learn about appositive phrases!  But first, a practice sentence:

1. Being America’s national bird, the Bald Eagle has little natural predators like the Great Horned Owl, and their population dwindling to almost nothing up to the point of DDT being banned.

(A) Being America’s national bird, the Bald Eagle has little natural predators like the Great Horned Owl, and their population dwindling to almost nothing up to the point of DDT being banned.

(B) Like the Great Horned Owl, the Bald Eagle, America’s national bird, has few natural predators, yet its population dwindled to almost nothing until DDT was banned.

(C) The Bald Eagle, like the Great Horned Owl, America’s national bird, has little natural predators, but their population having dwindling to almost until DDT had been banned.

(D) The Bald Eagle, America’s national bird, has a very small number of natural predators, as does the Great Horned Owl, but its population dwindling to almost nothing until DDT is banned.

(E) The Bald Eagle, which is America’s national bird, has few natural predators as the Great Horned Owl, as its population dwindling to almost nothing until DDT was banned.


A special kind of modifier

All noun modifiers give us some kind of information about the noun they modify.  In some ways, the most “intimate” information one could give about a noun is to say what it is.  An appositive is a second noun that follows a first noun and is identical to the first noun.  When this second noun is modified by an adjective, and possibly even modifying subordinate clauses, it becomes an appositive phrase.  Sometimes the phrase is used rhetorically, as Mark Antony used it at the opening of Julius Caesar’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s play, quoted above — “friends” and “Romans” and “countrymen” are not three different groups, but three ways to refer to the same group of people.  Rhetorical use of the appositive is a highly unlikely construction to encounter on the GMAT Sentence Correction. Often the appositive phrase is a clarifying description, meant to inform folks who might not be familiar with the first noun. This is almost always how it appears on the GMAT.   For example —-

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2) Claude Debussy, a great French composer, ….

3) Rhodesia, the region that eventually became Zimbabwe, …

4) The “wallpaper group,” the set of the fourteen possible symmetry patterns in two dimensions,….

All three of these are of the form [noun][modifier], and would need at least a verb before they could be considered a complete sentence.


Punctuation: the weight of a comma

In the three examples above, there was a comma between the first noun and the appositive phrase.  Is a comma always required?  No.  Is the comma optional?  No.  Is there a special rule about when the comma is required and when it isn’t?  YES!  That rule is none other than the distinction of vital modifiers, a.k.a. essential modifiers, a.k.a. restrictive modifiers.   When the modifier (appositive or other kind of modifier) is purely descriptive, and not necessary to establish the identity of the noun, it is a non-vital, non-essential modifier, and these are ALWAYS separated by commas.  In #2-4 above, all three are non-vital, because Claude Debussy and Rhodesia and the wallpaper group all have extremely well-defined identities, regardless of whether the reader has heard of them, and the modifier is simply descriptive for those who might not know.   By contrast,

5) My friend Chris enjoys beating me in foosball.

The name “Chris” is an appositive modifying the noun “friend” — in other words, I have several friends, so just saying “my friend” does not determine a unique identity.  The name “Chris” is needed to determine the identity — that is precisely what makes it a vital modifier.  Vital modifiers are NEVER separated by commas from the rest of the sentence.   If I were to say ….

5a) My friend, Chris, ……

… this would imply that I had only one friend in the world, that saying “my friend” uniquely determined that single individual, and that the name “Chris” was merely informative, given for all those people who happen not to know the name of my one and only friend in the whole world.  Most healthy people would say something like “My friend Chris …”, but the person who said “My friend, Chris, …” — well, we would be severely worried about the psychological health of someone who had only one friend in the world.  The presence or absence of commas makes a HUGE difference in this context.

Another example of this distinction:

6a) My wife, Lucy, …..

6b) My wife Lucy

The first has commas and thus treats the name as a non-vital modifier: this means the words “my wife” are sufficient to determine the identity of a unique individual, and the name is merely provided as information.   This would be the situation of most ordinary married people — that is, people who are married to only one partner!

By contrast, the second doesn’t have commas, which implies that the name is a vital modifier!  In other words, for that person, the words “my wife” do not determine a unique individual, because, apparently, that person has multiple wives, and therefore has to specify the name of one woman out of the several who could be called “my wife.”  If someone is able to use #6b in a grammatically correct sense, they are practicing something that is illegal in all 50 states.  Just think about it: in this instance, commas denote the difference between a completely legal marital situation and a 100% illegal marital situation — that’s how important punctuation is!

Having read this article, take another look at the practice question above, and see if you understand it better before you read through the explanation below.


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Practice question explanation

1) There are several important splits.  First let’s talk about the “little” vs. “few” split.  “Natural predators” are something one can count, so when we are talking about a limited number of something we can count, the correct word is “few” — the phrase “few natural predators” in (B) and (E) is 100% correct, the phrase “little natural predators” in (A) and (C) is completely wrong, and the phrase “a very small number of natural predators” in (D) is technically correct but very wordy — we would only go with that as a last resort.

The next split I’ll look at is the conjunction opening the second part of the sentence.  What we need is a contrast — the Bald Eagle has few predators, which you think would mean it would naturally thrive.  By contrast, because of DDT, its numbers were dwindling.  Expect high number, get low numbers — that’s a contrast.  We need a contrast word for the conjunction. The word “yet” in (B) and “but” in (C) & (D) provide this strong contrast, whereas the “and” of (A) and the “as” of (E) are insufficient.

Now let’s look at the handling of the appositive.  Choices (B) & (D) have the proper appositive construction — they name the “Bald Eagle” — and then a comma for the non-vital appositive description “America’s national bird.”  (C), through a misplaced modifier, attributes the status of national bird to the wrong bird.  (A) has an awkward “being” construction, and (E) constructs a longer, more awkward phrase.   Clearly, the appositive structure of (B) & (D) is the best among these choices.

Finally, look at the second half of the sentence.  We need a full noun + verb construction, a complete clause.  Four of the five answers make the “missing verb” mistake, with participles like “dwindling” or “having dwindled” instead of a bonafide verb; only (B) has a genuine verb, “dwindled.”

That’s more than enough to isolate (B) as the best answer.


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17 Responses to GMAT Grammar: Appositive Phrases

  1. Bessemer.Moon May 15, 2020 at 6:56 am #

    A person’s success does not depend on his wisdom, but perseverance

  2. Harman December 26, 2017 at 3:16 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for your detailed description of appositives. It is rather helpful!

    I have a question about the example that you used to illustrate the concept. If my observation is correct, there also exists a ‘as v/s like’ split in the question, which further differentiates option B) and D).

    Now I believe “As” is to be used when comparing Actions, trends etc. which is the case with our example.

    As/Like the GREAT HORNED OWL, the Bald Eagle, America’s national bird, HAS few natural predators…

    By that logic, should option B) not be ruled out?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 11, 2018 at 1:03 pm #

      Hi Harman,

      What a great question! 🙂 You’re right that “as” is used when comparing actions and trends (verbs and noun-verb pairs), while “like” is used to compare *things* (nouns only). However, option (B) is still OK, because (B) is worded in such a way that the owl and eagle are are being compared directly as nouns. In contrast, (D) phrases the comparison so that it focuses on the action/verb phrase about having few natural predators.

      In short, either “as” or “like” could be correct in this sentence, because these splits are related to grammatical sequence, not to actual meaning. Does that make sense?

  3. kartika March 29, 2015 at 3:46 am #

    Hi Mike,

    I’ve a very basic question, once we have identified the splits in the 5 options given, how do we give them priority and start process of elimination?

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike March 30, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

      Dear Karita,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 Once you identify the splits in a GMAT SC question, then how do you give then priority? Well, to some extent, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is to do the “black/white” splits first: these are the issues such as SVA in which there is a clear right answer and a clear wrong answer. For example, the first split I discussed in my solution here is the “few” vs. “little” split: “few predators” is correct, and “little predators” is just plain wrong: that means (A) & (C) are just wrong, and we can simply ignore those choices in the later analysis.
      If we had started with the missing verb mistake, we would have eliminate four answers right away and have been done quickly. That would have been a very advantageous approach as an individual student. Since I wanted to show everything going on in this sentence in the solution, I delayed discussing the missing verb mistake until the end, so I could discuss all the other grammatical features of the sentence first. Thus, priority for a student solving a question can be a little different from the priority for a teacher demonstrating the solution to a question.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  4. Walter July 10, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    It’s not my first time to pay a quick visit this site. I am browsing this site daily and get pleasant information from here everyday.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike July 11, 2014 at 10:08 am #

      I’m glad you are finding this blog helpful. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

  5. Terrace December 10, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Hi, Mike!

    As for the sentence, “My friend Chris enjoys beating me in foosball”, you said that sentence implies that I had many friends, and one of them is known as Chris, who enjoys beating me in foosball.

    Can I say that this sentence has another meaning, which also implies that all my friends but Chris do not enjoy beating me in foosball?

    I have that kind of opinion becase of an OG explanation of a choice[OG13/117-P762].
    Please see below:

    choice E: Gall’s hypothesis which is widely accepted today is that…

    And the OG explains that the which-clause implies that Gall’s other theories are not accepted today.

    Is this usage the same as that of your example?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike December 11, 2012 at 11:02 am #

      Terrace — the restriction, only or not only, applies *only* to the appositive phrase itself. No implication is to be extended to the rest of the sentence. Whether I have “My friend Chris …” or “My friend, Chris, …” speaks to the relationship of the category “my friend” and the person “Chris”, but the implication of “only” or “not only” does not extend to the rest of the sentence. Therefore, from the sentence about Chris we can draw absolutely no logical implication about whether some or all of my other friends enjoy beating me in foosball.
      By contrast, the OG sentence “which” clause distinguishes the one hypothesis “which is widely accepted today” from the others which aren’t. Whether the hypothesis is widely accepted today is part and parcel of that distinction.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  6. Terrace December 1, 2012 at 5:29 am #

    Hi, Mike! Thanks for sharing!
    But I have some problems after reading this article.
    (1) What’s the difference between the appositive phrase and absolute phrase? Both of them consist of “noun + noun modifier”. But as you said, an appositive phrase is an appositive, a kind of noun modifier. And I tend to regard absolute phrase as a type of verb modifiers, which are used to modify the verbs in the main clause.

    (2) The following sentence is quoted from MANHATTAN SC 5TH.
    “Scientists have found high levels of iridium in certain geological formations around the world, results that suggest the cataclysmic impact of a meteor millions of years ago.”
    The second part of the sentence is said to be absolute phrase. I think that is also appositive phrase. Am I right?

    Thanks in advance^^!!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike December 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      In an appositive phrase, the modifier is optional. What is essential is the noun in the appositive following the noun it is modifying. “My friend Chris …” —- Chris is the noun, the appositive, that modifies “friend.” The noun in the appositive of course can be modified by other words or phrases, but that is not essential for the grammar. An appositive always modifies a noun immediately adjacent to it.
      An absolute phrase typically does modify a single noun but rather an action or situation, often most or all of the sentence. In the MGMAT sentence about iridium, that phrase is not modifying “world”, the noun that immediately precedes it, but rather it is referring to the entire preceding clause. Furthermore, the modifier within an absolute phrase is no longer decorative, but grammatically essential. That phrase in the MGMAT sentence is an absolute phrase, *not* an appositive phrase.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Terrace December 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

        Thank Mike O(∩_∩)O!
        So do you mean that appositive phrase is used to explain the identity of the preceding noun or noun phrase, while the absolute phrase modifies an action or a situation of a noun in the main clause?

        Besides, sometimes I find that several sentences use the absolute phrase by adding a WITH. For instance,

        *With a book in hand, the teacher walked into the class.

        This sentence is an example of absolute phrase, right?
        So, I’m wondering whether this kind of structure (WITH in absolute phrase) is different from the common prepositional phrase of WITH.

        Is it even possible that the common prepositional phrase of WITH consists of “WITH + noun + noun modifier”?

        Thanks very much(*^__^*) !!

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike December 1, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

          Terrace: I’m sorry to say, that example is NOT an absolute phrase. It is begins with “with”, it’s prepositional phrase —- here, it’s a prepositional phrase acting as an adjectival phrase. See this blog:
          An absolute phrase will NEVER begin with a preposition. Does this make sense?
          Mike 🙂

          • Terrace December 2, 2012 at 5:20 am #

            Mike, so do you mean that phrases that begin with “WITH” are just common prepositional phrases, which modify either nouns or verbs?

            In addition, appositive phrase is used to explain the identity of the preceding noun or noun phrase, while the absolute phrase modifies an action or a situation of a noun in the main clause, right?

            Thanks a lot><!!

            • Mike MᶜGarry
              Mike December 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

              1) The word “with” only functions as a preposition — it has no other role at all. The only thing it can do is open a prepositional phrase.
              2) Appositives always modify the noun to which they are immediately adjacent. They follow the modifier Touch Rule.
              3) Absolutely phrases *usually* comment on the situation, or the action, or the overall sentence, or something larger than a single word.
              Does all this make sense?
              Mike 🙂

              • Terrace December 3, 2012 at 3:00 am #

                I get what you mean!

                Thanks a lot:)

                • Mike MᶜGarry
                  Mike December 3, 2012 at 9:39 am #

                  You are quite welcome.
                  Mike 🙂

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