5 Appositive Phrases with Punctuation Problems

By Mark Nichol

An appositive is a noun or a noun phrase that appears in proximity to another noun or noun phrase to define or modify it. When writers employ nonrestrictive appositions, which consist of optional additional information, they sometimes fail to punctuate the sentence correctly to indicate that the phrase is parenthetical, leading to confusion. Here are five sentences in which insertion of a single comma repairs the damage.

1. “John Smith, Jones’s rival and number four on the FBI’s most-wanted list is caught.”
If this sentence began with “Jones’s rival . . .,” it would be correctly punctuated. But “John Smith” is the subject, “is caught” is the object, and the phrase beginning “Jones’s rival” and ending “most-wanted list” is an appositive, and must be punctuated as a parenthetical phrase: “John Smith, Jones’s rival and number four on the FBI’s most-wanted list, is caught.”

2. “John Doe, who once led the company was indicted on eighty-five counts in a huge federal case.”
The basic facts are that John Doe was indicted; the phrase “who once led the company” is an appositive parenthetical and must, like the descriptive phrase in the preceding example, be framed by commas: “John Doe, who once led the company, was indicted on eighty-five counts in a huge federal case.”

3. “Life has been rough for Jane Roe, the governor’s chief of staff ever since her controversial remark went public.”
“The governor’s chief of staff” is the appositive here; without a comma following the phrase to complement the preceding comma, the statement implies that she gained her position when she made the remark: “Life has been rough for Jane Roe, the governor’s chief of staff, ever since her controversial remark went public.”

4. “General Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman who just wrapped up a visit to Afghanistan, was asked whether he foresees North Korea taking military action soon.”
By combining the general’s title with the reference to his recent visit to Afghanistan, the sentence implies that more than one Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman exists; Dempsey is the one who had just returned from Afghanistan. The phrase “the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman” must be bracketed by a pair of commas to show that it is the first of two parenthetical phrases dividing the subject from the object: “General Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, who just wrapped up a visit to Afghanistan, was asked whether he foresees North Korea taking military action soon.”

(Sometimes, one of two consecutive appositives that follow another noun or noun phrase can be separated by relocating one before the noun or noun phrase it refers to, but here, Dempsey’s title would compete with his military rank; however, the reference to the Afghanistan visit could be moved to a subsequent sentence, or even deleted because it is irrelevant to the sentence.)

5. “The next antiwar demonstration scheduled to take place on April 7 may take aim at companies outside San Francisco.”
This sentence’s lack of internal punctuation will likely lead readers to assume that more than one demonstration is scheduled to take place on April 7, which is a distracting error. The reference to the date is in apposition, identifying the date of the event (it is appositive because, as a truncated version of “the one scheduled to take place on April 7,” it is another way of referring to “the next antiwar demonstration”), and could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence: “The next antiwar demonstration, scheduled to take place on April 7, may take aim at companies outside San Francisco.”

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6 Responses to “5 Appositive Phrases with Punctuation Problems”

  • Matt Gaffney

    The writer’s fourth example is far, far clunkier than implied; however, the description of the problem and the solution are themselves somewhat problematic.

    The sentence is in the passive voice and has no direct object, but the writer suggests that one of its problems divides “. . . the subject from the object.”

    Also, despite the writer’s misgivings, I think it would have been fine to begin the sentence “Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey . . . .” That’s a mouthful, to be sure, but it’s par for the course in this military context, where titles and ranks abound, much like mice in my grandmother’s corn crib.

    Also, since “taking” is a gerund, I believe the phrase should be “. . . North Korea’s taking military action . . . .”

    I think the corrected sentence should read: “Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, who just wrapped up a visit to Afghanistan, was asked whether he foresees North Korea’s taking military action soon.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I hope that you make some progress, Mr. Nichol, because few people nowadays have any idea what an appositive it. Indeed, the problem seems to be worse east of the Atlantic Ocean than it is west of the ocean.

    Furthermore, it is just like someone had already mentioned:
    “North Korea taking military action soon,” is quite fallacious, but “North Korea’s taking military action soon,” is quite correct English.

    So few people nowadays understand that a gerund needs a “subject” in the genitive case. (They would say, “Genitive case, what the hell?”) This is true for pronouns as well as for nouns, where the valid subjects for gerunds are these: {my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose}.

    “This is the rocket plane whose breaking of the sound barrier in October 1947 with Chuck Yeager at the controls…”
    This is because “whose” is the genitive form of “which”.

    Gerunds take “subjects”, but participles and infinitives do not.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The corrected sentence should read:
    “General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who just finished a visit to Afghanistan, was asked whether he foresees North Korea’s taking military action soon.”

    The people who cannot or will not write like this have been inoculated against appositives, prepositional phrases, and the word “the”.
    Where are these vaccines made?
    D.A.W.

  • Matt Gaffney

    @Dale A. Wood

    Dale, gerunds are verbal nouns. They don’t take a subject. Indeed, your example (“. . . my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose) underscores this rule. Your examples are not nouns, but possessive adjectives. The rule is to treat a gerund just as one would treat any other noun. You confusion is understandable. I doubt many elementary schools taught gerunds after Kennedy was elected.

    As for your corrected sentence, your example is certainly valid, but it’s not the only valid rendition, as I initially pointed out; however, given the attention span and impatience engendered by texting, IM, Twitter, etc., it’s difficult for many people to wrap their heads around my admittedly long—but absolutely correct—subject.

  • Mary A. Murrain

    Would it be acceptable to use both “North Korea” and “North Korea’s” in the sentence in the article? I understand clearly the reason for using the latter as “North Korea’s taking military action” becomes a noun (or a complete idea or issue).

    Thanks.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    Yes, either way is correct: “North Korea taking military action soon treats taking as a verb; “North Korea’s taking military action soon” treats it as a gerund.

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