John M Donovan
The Power of Appositive Thinking
Let’s talk about appositives.*
To be more specific, let’s talk about appositives and why the hell so many “writers” in the fields of PR and journalism don’t know how to punctuate them.
(Uh-oh. He put the word writers in quotes. He mad about something.)
An appositive is simply a phrase that follows a noun to restate it, clarify it, or expand on it. Appositives are set apart by commas so the reader can pause ever so briefly and get a better understanding of the nouns they follow.
Some examples of appositives follow in bold type.
Jimmy Lee Spooflacker, the ill-fated bass player, demanded songwriting credit.
A third man, Harry Lime, was not available for comment.
In Cancun we had a room across the hall from Ted Cruz, a notorious scumbag.
As noted above, the appositives are set off by commas. You could take the appositives and the commas out and the sentence would still make sense. End of story, right? Not quite. Because I keep running across maddening sentences like these:
Ill-fated bass player, Jimmy Lee Spooflacker, demanded songwriting credit.
Third man, Harry Lime, was shot in the sewers of Vienna.
Democracy-hating con man, Ted Cruz, refused to stop licking the boots of his corporate lobbyists.
The second set of examples is punctuated incorrectly. Nobody talks like this, and you can prove it by reading them out loud, making sure you pause at each comma. If you’re still not convinced, read the examples without the appositives:
Third man was shot in the sewers of Vienna.
That clangs off the eardrum, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing. You can make the second set of examples correct in two easy ways. One way to do it is to add a simple article or modifier at the beginning of each sentence, to wit:
The band’s ill-fated bass player, Jimmy Lee Spooflacker, demanded songwriting credit.
The third man, Harry Lime, was shot in the sewers of Vienna.
One democracy-hating con man, Ted Cruz, refused to stop licking the boots of his corporate lobbyists.
Another way to make those examples correct is to remove the commas.
Ill-fated bass player Jimmy Lee Spooflacker demanded songwriting credit.
Third man Harry Lime was shot in the sewers of Vienna.
With the commas removed, these sentences have no appositives. “Spooflacker” and “Lime” become the subjects of their respective sentences and “Ill-fated bass player” and “Third man” become adjective phrases.
Are we good? Do we know how to punctuate appositives correctly? Good. I expect to see a drastic reduction in punctuation crime.
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*Interestingly enough, the phrase "Let's talk about appositives" currently ranks 28th on the list of things to say when you want to clear a room.