An appositive is a noun, or noun phrase, placed by another noun in order to help describe it or identify it.  So, in the phrase “Donald Trump, a reality TV star, is running for President,” the phrase “a reality TV star” is describing Donald Trump—it is an appositive phrase.

Why are appositives important?  Well, they help add information to specify things—in our previous example, it’s describing which of the many people named Donald Trump we’re talking about, and telling the reader more about why Donald Trump is.  However, appositives do two major things, each different and requiring different punctuation.  They can impart essential information or extra information.  Appositives that give extra information are set off by commas, while appositives that give essential information are not separated by commas.  Let’s go a little deeper into that to explain it.

Let’s look at three sentences, all of which are correct:

  • “Swimmer Ryan Lochte got into trouble in Rio de Janeiro.”
  • “A swimmer, Ryan Lochte, got into trouble in Rio de Janeiro.”
  • “A swimmer, Ryan Locthe got into trouble in Rio de Janeiro.”

In the first example, “Ryan Lochte” is an appositive; it’s describing which swimmer we’re talking about.  However, it’s essential to the sentence—the phrase “Swimmer got into trouble” doesn’t make any sense by itself.  The name of the swimmer, in this case, is essential—we’re restricting the sentence to just talking about “Lochte”; we’re not saying that all swimmers got into trouble.   Therefore, it’s essential, and you don’t separate it out with a comma.

The next two examples are very similar, with the first having a comma after Lochte and the second not having the comma.  What’s going on?

In both cases we have an appositive, and it’s extra information, so it’s set off from the sentence.  The difference is which phrase is the subject, and which phrase is the appositive.

In the first example, we’re using “a swimmer” as the subject—we want to tell people that a swimmer got into trouble.  “Ryan Locthe”, then, is being used as an appositive, describing who the swimmer is.  Because that’s not essential to the sentence making sense, we mark it off with commas before and after the appositive; the sentence “A swimmer got into trouble in Rio de Janeiro” makes perfect sense, making “Ryan Locthe” extra.

In the second example, though, we’re using “Ryan Lochte” as the subject.  We’re telling people that it was Lochte who got into trouble.  Here, we’re using “a swimmer” as the appositive—it’s describing who Lochte is.  Because that’s extra information, we need to set that off from the sentence with commas.  Since you can’t start a sentence with a comma—there’s nothing before the “a swimmer” to separate—all we do is add a single comma after the phrase, separating it from the main part of the sentence.  “Ryan Locthe got into trouble in Rio de Janeiro” makes perfect sense, making “a swimmer” extra.  It’s all about what you want to emphasize is more important in your sentence.

As always, if you’re not sure you’ve aced your appositives, feel free to stop by Wordsmith Essays’ order page, where our team of international editors will help make sure everything is correct and ready to go before you submit your paper.  Good luck, and good writing!



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