I thought it would be fun to talk about appositives today. An appositive is a noun that renames a noun that  comes earlier in a sentence (or, occasionally, prenames a verb that comes later in the sentence), but without a to be verb (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) to link the two nouns.

Here are some examples (the appositives are in bold):

  • Fred the mailman retired last week.
  • Soon we shall have watermelon, the fruit of kings.
  • The possum, the only marsupial native to North America, is also the only non-primate with opposable thumbs.

As you can see, in each of those cases the appositive phrase is spang up against the noun that it renames, with no intervening verb. That “verblessness” is your clue, in fact, that you have an appositive.

Here are a couple of “verb-ish” ways to express the idea in that first sentence:

  • Fred was a mailman. He retired last week. (“Mailman” is a predicate nominative.)
  • Fred, who was our mailman, retired last week. (“Who was our mailmain” is an adjective clause.)

In both of these cases, the verb (was) inserts itself between “Fred” and “mailman.” You can see how the use of the appositive smooths things out. Since we’re not trying to communicate anything more complex or interesting than “Fred = mailman,” the appositive is a very economical way to do it. The real action here is Fred’s retirement. The appositive allows us to convey that relevant information (Fred = mailman) while still saving the real action for the main clause:

  • Fred the mailman retired last week.

It is not uncommon to see a doubling of appositives as a way of inserting even more information into a sentence. Consider this sentence, which has two appositives renaming Fred:

  • Fred the mailman, an avid gardener, often commented on our mailbox flowers. 

There are three ideas in that sentence:

  • Fred was a mailman.
  • Fred was (is?) an avid gardener.
  • Fred often commented on our mailbox flowers.

The appositives provide an efficient and elegant way to communicate those three ideas. Also, it occurs to me, the appositive lets me off the hook for figuring out a tricky verb tense. Fred retired last week, so I say he was our mailman and I say he commented on our mailbox flowers (both past tense). But I’m sure he’s still an avid gardener, even though he’s not our mailman. So it would be strange to say he was an avid gardener…but it would also be strange to shift from past tense to present tense, then back to past tense. The appositives, by omitting the verb, solve this problem for me.

Appositives, as I said, are an efficient and elegant way to insert more information in a sentence. But you must not let that power go to your head. For instance, you wouldn’t want to say

  • Fred the mailman, an avid gardener and commenter on mailbox flowers, retired last week.

As Jeff Goldblum said about dinosaur-cloning, just because you can do a thing, that doesn’t mean you should. You can cram all sorts of information into a sentence using appositives and other sophisticated grammatical structures, but nobody is handing out an award for “Most Information Crammed into a Single Sentence.”

It seems to me there are two ideas in that sentence that deserve their own clauses, so I would do something more like this:

  • Fred the mailman retired last week. An avid gardener, he often commented on our mailbox flowers.

or

  • Fred the mailman, an avid gardener, often commented on our mailbox flowers. He retired last week.

By the way, once you have teased out the main ideas and put them into their own clauses, you often find that you’ve got more space to say something a little more interesting. “He retired last week,” for instance, might become, “He retired last week after twenty years serving our neighborhood.”

One More Thing About Appositives: Keeping Equivalence
The following sentence tries to communicate too much information, largely through the use of appositives. But it also contains an actual appositive-related grammar error. See if you can identify the error:

  • Despite growing up in a wealthy family—the son of a CEO, the only reason Grandma agreed to go on a first date with him—Grandpa was poor for most of his adult life.

The best way to tackle a sentence like this is first to sort out the ideas and actions that it communicates:

  1. Grandpa grew up in a wealthy family.
  2. Grandpa was the son of a CEO.
  3. Grandma agreed to go on a first date with Grandpa because he was the wealthy son of a CEO.
  4. Grandpa was poor for most of his adult life.

Idea #1 is expressed as the prepositional phrase “despite growing up in a wealthy family”: despite is the preposition, and growing up in a wealthy family is a gerund phrase serving as the object of the preposition. 

Idea #2 is expressed as an appositive. “Son of a CEO” prenames “Grandpa.” Note that, while there are lots of words between “son” and “Grandpa,” none of those words is a verb connecting the two nouns to one another.

Idea #3 we will skip for the moment.

Idea #4 is expressed as the main clause of the sentence, “Grandpa was poor for most of his adult life.” Which reminds me: one of the dangers of using appositives is that they can delay the arrival of the main verb. But that’s not, properly speaking, a grammatical error. 

The grammar error, as you have probably sussed out already, is related to Idea #3. That phrase “the only reason Grandma agreed to go on a first date with him” is framed as an appositive phrase: the noun reason looks like it is supposed to rename some preceding noun. The only preceding nouns, however, are family, son, and CEO, none of which can be a reason.

The writer’s idea, of course, is that everything he just said about his grandfather’s background was the reason his grandmother agreed to go out with him. But that’s not how appositives work. An appositive must be equivalent to some other noun in the sentence. If it helps, think in terms of an equal sign.

  • Son of a CEO = Grandpa
  • reason Grandma agreed = ??

If you remove that faulty appositive, the sentence works fine:

  • Despite growing up in a wealthy family, the son of a CEO, Grandpa was poor for most of his adult life.

But assuming that the idea of Grandma and Grandpa’s first date is important enough to include, how would you include it? Well, if you split the one long sentence into more than one sentence and give the first date its own clause, you have all sorts of options. I would probably do something like this:

  • Grandpa grew up in a wealthy family, the son of a CEO; that was the only reason Grandma agreed to go on a first date with him. But Grandpa was poor for most of his adult life.

Or, if I wanted to move Grandma closer to the center of the reader’s attention,

  • Grandma only agreed to go on a first date with Grandpa because he had grown up in a wealthy family, the son of a CEO. But as it turned out, Grandpa was poor most of his adult life—and so, by extension, was Grandma.

Again, separating out the ideas into separate sentences makes room for additional observations that clarify or add interest. 

For your further edification