An Emphatic Essay About Appositive Epithets

By Mark Nichol

An interesting problem often presents itself when one employs an anarthrous nominal premodifier.

A what who which?

“Anarthrous nominal premodifier” is usage-ese for “false title,” one of a handful of other more user-friendly ways to describe a job title that is not a job title. A description of this concept that is, I think, better still is epithet (a versatile word meaning, in this case, “characterization”), and that’s the one I use here and elsewhere on this site.

An epithet — in which, for purposes of clarification or edification, a person’s name is preceded by a concise description of that person — is often derided as a coarse conceit of journalistic writing, but it appears quite often in books and other forms of publication as well, and it serves a useful purpose, eliminating the need to follow a person’s name with a more distracting (and often more extensive) parenthetical description.

Unfortunately, too many people form the epithet-name construction incorrectly, as in this sentence: “The essay was written by humanities professor, Paul A. Robinson.”

This is one of the most egregious mechanical errors a writer can make; few other such infelicities distinguish the amateur from the professional, and it is one of life’s mysteries how such an obvious error has come to be so persistent as well as pervasive. (The correct form, of course, is “The essay was written by humanities professor Paul A. Robinson.”)

The mistake probably stems from confusion with the nearly identical form in the more traditional sentences “The essay was written by a humanities professor, Paul A. Robinson” and “The essay was written by Paul A. Robinson, a humanities professor.” (These forms are preferable to those who find epithets antithetical to good writing.)

The distinction here is that in the corrected sentence, the phrase “humanities professor” is a restrictive appositive. (An appositive is a noun phrase that defines or modifies another noun phrase, and a restrictive appositive is one that applies to only one other noun phrase.) In this sentence, the only humanities professor the phrase can refer to is Paul A. Robinson.

The presence of the indefinite article in the other variations is the crucial indicator that they each include a nonrestrictive appositive, one that refers to any example of the appositive’s description; Paul A. Robinson is just one member of the class “humanities professor,” and the punctuation signals that fact.

The restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction in appositives should be observed when referring to inanimate objects as well. A common error is to insert punctuation between the appositives in “Have you read the book, The Bestseller?” If a generic reference to the book has already been made, this sentence is correct; the title is an elaboration. However, when used on first reference, this construction presumes that the sole example of the concept “book” is The Bestseller. Because The Bestseller is, in fact, only one example among countless others, the comma is omitted to indicate that “the book” and “The Bestseller” are identical.

The same principle applies to any form of composition (film, television program, and so on) or any other thing: “I went to the amusement park Funland.” (“I went to the amusement park, Funland,” in the absence of a previous reference, implies that only one amusement park exists. “I went to the world’s largest amusement park, Funland,” by contrast, is correct, because only one amusement park can be the world’s largest one.)

If you oppose appositive epithets, this post isn’t for you. But for the many writers who accept the construction as proper usage, I recommend that you use the proper usage properly.

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10 Responses to “An Emphatic Essay About Appositive Epithets”

  • Geri Greene

    Whoever spent an inordinate amount of time writing this post is in the Club named “I will dissect a sentence and nit pick it to death, thereby taking all the fun out of writing.” I leave it to him to rearrange the words of my post until he approves thereby freeing me up to have some fun with words.

  • Claude Nougat

    As always, I really enjoy your tips! Thanks for your guidance, it’s pricelss!

  • B Rambo

    I agree that the comma doesn’t help in “…the book, The Bestseller” and such examples. But it may be splitting hairs a bit to make such a big deal about it as your construction below seems to be trying to make:

    “…few other such infelicities distinguish the amateur from the professional, and it is one of life’s mysteries how such an obvious error has come to be so persistent as well as pervasive.”

    Is this more of an infelicity than using “begs the question” to mean “raises another question”? Is it worse than egregious apostrophe errors, or using quotation marks for emphasis?

    B Rambo

  • Mark Nichol

    B Rambo:

    “Few other infelicities” leaves room for abhorrence of the other errors you mention, which I find just as heinous as the insertion of commas in such phrases as “DailyWritingTips.com contributor, Mark Nichol, wrote that . . . .” However, I stand by the vehemence of my condemnation of this construction. It’s inexcusable for a professional writer to make this elementary error.

  • Lyn

    I have to admit that I am one of those writers who perpetuate the mystery. I refer to my style books all the time in an effort to get this right. Do you know of an easy mnemonic device that can help me remember this rule?

  • Sally

    Your mention of this paricular type of epithet in journalism calls to mind a common Australian usage.

    In “Well known racing identity, Mr X…” the phrasal epithet implies that Mr X is a criminal! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racing_identity – note that this article misrepresents Australian law, which varies from state to state).

  • Mark Nichol

    Geri:

    This is not a matter of fun; I’m all for entertaining and offbeat prose. It’s a matter of right and wrong: You don’t begin a sentence with a lowercase letter, every sentence ends with punctuation, and a comma should not interfere between an epithet and a name. These are immutable laws of proper writing.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lyn:

    I don’t have any mnemonic for this matter, but think of an epithet as an adjective: “DailyWritingTips.com reader Lyn” describes which particular type of Lyn is being identified. Just as you wouldn’t punctuate “blue car” with a comma between the adjective and the noun and another following the noun, you don’t insert commas before and after your name. Or consider the subject in “Planet Earth is our home.” Planet is an epithet, and Earth is not bracketed by commas.

  • Precise Edit

    Nonrestrictive appositives: By non-restrictive, we mean they are simply renaming something. We are only referring to one thing, a category with only one thing in it. When appositives are nonrestrictive, they are set off with commas. These examples are nonrestrictive.

    “The committee chairwoman, A HARSH AND STUBBORN WOMAN, scorned the director’s request.”

    “My brother, a violin player, is coming home.”

    In the first example above, only one woman is the committee chairwoman. We don’t need to restrict the category to indicate which woman because it only has one woman in it; we’re just providing additional information about that woman. As such, the appositive is set off with commas.

    Restrictive appositives: By restrictive, we mean that we have used a name for a broad category with many things in it. We want the reader to know which thing we’re writing about, so we need to restrict the broad category to a narrow category that only contains one thing. When appositives are restrictive, they are not set off with commas. These next examples have a restrictive appositive.

    “Board member JOHN WILSON was present for the vote.”

    “The collection of poems LEAVES OF GRASS changed my opinion of poetry.”

    In the first restrictive appositive example, several people are in the category called “board member.” To tell the reader which board member was present, we add the restrictive appositive “John Wilson.” This restricts the category “board member” to one particular board member. The second example works the same way.
    (Modified from “Punctuating Apositives” (http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/punctuating-appositives/)

    Why is this a matter of right and wrong, as M. Nichols claims? Adding or leaving out the commas can fundamentally change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences.
    1. The senator took his daughter Susie to the movies.
    2. The senator took his daughter, Susie, to the movies.

    Example 1, without commas, has the restrictive appositive “Susie,” which is in apposition to “his daughter.” This has no commas, so we know that “Susie” is a restrictive appositive to identify which daughter. The only way this can be true is if the senator has more than one daughter.

    Example 2, with commas, has the nonrestrictive appositive “Susie,” which is also in apposition to “his daughter.” This has commas around “Susie,” so we know that the sentence isn’t identifying which daughter. “Susie” is the same as “his daughter.” The only way this can be true is if the senator has only one daughter.

    Do you see how the commas changed the meaning? With no commas (restrictive appositive), the senator has only one daughter. With commas (nonrestrictive appositive), the senator has more than one daughter.

    Thus, while we can argue right versus wrong and the relevance of grammar rules, these commas (or lack thereof) affect sentence meaning, i.e., clarity. And clarity is the first priority.

  • GBryceYukon

    Precise Edit, you said:

    >>Do you see how the commas changed the meaning? With no commas…, the senator has only one daughter. With commas …, the senator has more than one daughter.<<

    I think you mean the opposite.

    "My sister Mabel is coming to visit next week." No commas. I am defining which of my sisters is coming. I have MORE THAN one sister.

    "My brother, Jonathan, came to visit in January." With the comma, brother and Jonathan are interchangeable. This indicates that I have only one brother.

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