3 Appositive Errors

By Mark Nichol

Confusion often arises as to how or whether to punctuate appositive phrases, which are descriptions that identify someone or something named in the same sentence. Here are three statements with punctuation problems that illustrate the peril of improper punctuation, with explanations and suggested revisions.

1. “The fog arrived unannounced — ‘on little cat feet,’ as the American poet, Carl Sandburg, put it.”
Framing Carl Sandburg’s name with commas implies that he is the American poet — the only one. The accurate revision is “The fog arrived unannounced — ‘on little cat feet,’ as the American poet Carl Sandburg put it.” (In this case, the, preceding the epithet, is optional — and American is included only because the source sentence is from a book published in the United Kingdom, where Sandburg’s name is not as well known as it is in the United States.)

2. “But he had another particular passion, and that was water, ‘especially dramatically moving water,’ writes his biographer Robert Jones.”
It’s quite possible for a famous personage to have more than one biographer, but in this context, only one, the source of the quote, is referred to, so his name should be set off in apposition to the epithet biographer: “But he had another particular passion, and that was water, ‘especially dramatically moving water,’ writes his biographer, Robert Jones.” (In other contexts, “writes biographer Robert Jones” — which from its lack of commas denotes that more than one biographer exists — might be correct.)

3. “Here’s what the CEO of World Wide Widgets John Smith said to his employees in a blog post.”
The identification of the subject of this sentence is incorrectly ordered. Four solutions present themselves: “Here’s what World Wide Widgets CEO John Smith said to his employees in a blog post” is journalistic style, in which the simple affiliation-title-name syntax erases the need for punctuation, but formal writing favors a more relaxed arrangement.

“Here’s what John Smith, World Wide Widgets’s CEO, said to his employees in a blog post” helpfully sets the subject’s affiliation and title off from his name, but it’s better yet to reverse the order to title, then affiliation; either that combination or the name can come first (“Here’s what the CEO of World Wide Widgets, John Smith, said to his employees in a blog post” or “Here’s what John Smith, the CEO of World Wide Widgets, said to his employees in a blog post”; in the latter example, the is optional).

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2 Responses to “3 Appositive Errors”

  • Ian Webster

    Just when I think I’ve got this you throw me into the deep end again.
    What’s the difference between “the American poet Carl Sandburg put it” and “World Wide Widgets CEO John Smith said”?
    In the first, there is more than one American poet–no commas.
    In the second, there is only one CEO of WWW. Why the same punctuation (journalistic style or not)?
    Thanks, Ian

  • Deborah Gafford

    Hello. I read one of your tips recently concerning using commas to set off an informational phrase within a sentence. The tip said when to surround the phrase with commas and when not to, depending on whether the phrase was necessary to understanding the meaning of the sentence or not. It mentioned that if the phrase could be left out of the sentence and the sentence could still be understood to surround the phrase by commas (or not). Remembering whether to use the commas or not is what I am trying to find. I meant to bookmark the tip so I might refer to it from time to time but forgot to do so. As comma use is one of my banes, I would like to find it again. I have gone through all your other links concerning commas but have not found it. I would greatly appreciate your help in finding the tip again.

    I read your tips every day, find them very helpful, and have told many of my writer friends about them. Thank you for your tips of excellent information!

    Deborah Gafford

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