Mike MᶜGarry

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!

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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.


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.



  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as “member of the month” for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike’s Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.

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