Comma use with appositives

We continue our look at comma use with interrupting and parenthetical expressions by focusing on appositives.

The term appositive may be unfamiliar, but you certainly use appositives in most of your speaking and writing.

Here is an example: John Batiste, a singer and songwriter, is speaking at the reception.

Definition: An appositive is a word or a group of words inserted to explain the noun associated with it.

Usually appositives follow the noun they identify, but in some cases they can come before.

For example:  A singer and songwriter, John Batiste is speaking at the reception.

Appositives may be either restrictive or non-restrictive, but—except in a few cases—only non-restrictive modifiers are set off by commas.

In a previous blog, we looked at comma use with non-restrictive elements. As a reminder, a modifier is said to be restrictive when it restricts, or limits, the meaning of a sentence; thus a restrictive element is necessary to the meaning of the sentence’s meaning.

A non-restrictive element is considered to be unnecessary to the meaning of the sentence; it is adding nonessential or extra information, which is interesting or clarifying, but does not alter the basic meaning. As with other interrupting and parenthetical expressions, non-restrictive appositives can be removed without damaging the meaning or completeness of a sentence.

Consider the following examples from The Everyday Writer:

non-restrictive appositive

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, includes the famous “Prisoner’s Chorus.”

Beethoven write only one opera, so its name is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and therefore is set off with commas. (And the name can be removed without changing the meaning.)

restrictive appositive

Mozart’s opera  The Marriage of Figaro was considered revolutionary.

The phrase The Marriage of Figaro is essential to the meaning of the sentence because Mozart wrote more than one opera. Therefore it is not set off with commas. (198-199)

Missing comma with a non-restrictive element is ranked as #11 on the Top Twenty list of common errors (Lunsford & Lunsford 2008). (Interestingly, the related error unnecessary comma with a restrictive element appeared on the 1986 list by Connors & Lunsford, The Everyday Writer.)

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