Grammar tips: Teaching appositives

Teaching appositives? These rules and tips will help you explain this part of speech.

Sentence variations play an important role in writing. They can add interest and variety to a composition, improve rhythm, or help you trim wordy sentences.

The appositive, an especially useful sentence variation, can even help you combine two sentences:

Bertram is a master chef.
Bertram works at La Petite Restaurant.

into one sentence:

Bertram, a master chef, works at La Petite Restaurant.

What’s an Appositive?

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows another noun. An appositive explains or defines the noun it follows and is usually set off by commas.  In these examples, the noun or pronoun is green and the appositive is blue.

  • Mike’s dog, a mutt, sat down in the street.
  • Mike’s dog, a scrawny mutt, sat down in the street.
  • Mike’s dog, a scrawny mutt with a scruffy coat, sat down in the street.
  • Mike’s dog, a scrawny, scruffy-coated mutt with no common sense, sat down in the street.

A few more examples:

  • My neighbor Augustus grew a 100-pound pumpkin last summer.
  • Flipper, Melvin’s pet goldfish, lives in a glass bowl on the bookshelf.
  • Grandpa’s ancient Buick, a behemoth of a car, still drives like a charm.
  • The garage, a danger zone, is filled with tools, bags of used clothing, boxes of papers, stacks of old magazines, and countless other piles of junk.

When Appositives Need Commas

Some appositives require commas and others don’t.

Commas Needed. You’ll need to use commas if the sentence would still be complete and clear without the appositive. Put one comma before the appositive and one after when it provides non-essential information.

  • Dilbert Dithers, one of the town’s junk dealers, collects vintage radios. (The sentence makes sense without the appositive. Since the appositive adds non-essential information, commas are necessary.)

Commas Not Needed. If the appositive gives meaning to the sentence, you will not need to put commas around the appositive. One-word appositives do not need commas.

  • The American author Ernest Hemingway spent many years abroad. (Since there are many American authors, Ernest Hemingway makes the sentence meaningful. Therefore, no commas are needed.)
  • Pinkie’s brother Roscoe lives in Walla Walla. (In order to explain which of Pinkie’s brothers we’re referring to, Roscoe becomes essential information. It’s also a one-word appositive. Therefore, no commas are needed.)

Choosing Where to Place an Appositive

An appositive can BEGIN a sentence.

  • A prize-winning baker, Mrs. Patchett loves to make pies, cakes, and cookies.

An appositive can BREAK UP a sentence.

  • Mrs. Patchett, a prize-winning baker, loves to make pies, cakes, and cookies.

And an appositive can END a sentence.

  • Needing donations for the church bake sale, the committee called Mrs. Patchett, a prize-winning baker who loves to make pies, cakes, and cookies.
Photo: Kathia Shieh, courtesy of Creative Commons
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  • Posted January 23, 2009


    Well I never knew that was what they were called. What I need to share with children is why writers do this.
    Thanks for a great post.

  • Posted January 23, 2009


    Appositives are definitely handy for adding variety to sentence structure. Thank you for your comment, Joy.

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