Appositives and Descriptions

By Mark Nichol

Writers easily confuse an appositive (a descriptive word or phrase that is equivalent to a person, place, or thing that is named) with a phrase that simply describes a person, place, or thing named, or create confusion by incorrectly wording or punctuating an appositive or a description. The following sentences demonstrate various types of such errors.

1. My name is John Smith, product manager for Global Tetrahedron.

This construction creates the impression that “product manager for Global Tetrahedron” is part of John Smith’s name. That part of the sentence must be made distinct from the main clause as the basis of a separate independent clause (“My name is John Smith, and I am product manager for Global Tetrahedron”) or the subject must be reworded so that the sentence generically identifies John Smith rather than specifying what supposedly constitutes his name (“I am John Smith, product manager for Global Tetrahedron”).

2. Jane Jones, president of World Wide Widgets announced that the company will consolidate its product line.

The phrase “president of World Wide Widgets” is an appositive of “Jane Jones” (Jane Jones is the president of World Wide Widgets, and the president of World Wide Widgets is Jane Jones), so one must be set off parenthetically from the other: “Jane Jones, president of World Wide Widgets, announced that the company will consolidate its product line.”

3. Jeb Bush’s presence in the race and his fund-raising potential weren’t enough to dissuade fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, and more than a dozen other Republicans from entering the race.

Inclusion of a comma between a descriptive phrase and the noun or noun phrase it describes, as shown here, is a rampant uncorrected error that encourages even more writers to make the mistake. The problem is the resemblance of a simple descriptive phrase such as “fellow Floridian” to an appositive phrase such as “a fellow Floridian,” which is parenthetical and therefore expendable without sacrificing comprehension or completeness. However, “Fellow Floridian” cannot be excised from the sentence, nor can “Senator Marco Rubio,” which has been treated as an optional parenthetical.

To resolve the problem, delete the parenthetical commas (but also delete Senator, which competes with “fellow Floridian” as a descriptor) or simply insert a before “fellow Floridian” (and retain Senator): “Jeb Bush’s presence in the race and his fund-raising potential weren’t enough to dissuade fellow Floridian Marco Rubio and more than a dozen other Republicans from entering the race” or “Jeb Bush’s presence in the race and his fund-raising potential weren’t enough to dissuade a fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, and more than a dozen other Republicans from entering the race.”

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9 Responses to “Appositives and Descriptions”

  • Angela

    Is the verb “wasn’t” correctly used in example three? I think the sentence has a compound subject – presence and potential. I substitute “presence and potential” with “they” to write: They weren’t enough.
    Also, please help me with my punctuation in this comment. I’m still unsure of hyphens, quotation marks, and colons.
    Thanks so much.

  • Melissa

    This rundown of errors with appositives and descriptions is welcome; I see this kind of mistake on a daily basis. Did anyone notice, however, that there was a subject-verb agreement problem, too, in the quoted example #3, even after the other error was corrected? It should be “Jeb Bush’s presence in the race and his fund-raising potential weren’t enough . . . .” Sometimes one error distracts us from another!

  • Faith

    Shouldn’t it be “weren’t enough to dissuade fellow Floridian”?

  • Lynn

    I agree with Melissa and Faith. As an editor, I would change “wasn’t enough” to “weren’t enough” (as well as “fund-raising” to “fundraising”).

  • Bernadette

    I agree with you all and would have to reword sentence three also. “Jeb Bush’s presence in the race and his FUNDRAISING potential WEREN’T enough to dissuade fellow Floridian Marco Rubio OR more than a dozen other Republicans from entering the race.”

  • Thebluebird11

    I disagree about leaving out the word “Senator.” I don’t understand why you would remove it, as it seems to be important. I live in Florida but don’t pay attention to politics, and I couldn’t have told you who Marco Rubio is, but even though many people DO know that he’s is a senator, I still think it’s important to mention this. In this case, I would just recast that portion of the sentence and say “…weren’t enough to dissuade Senator Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian, or…”

  • Dale A. Wood

    So many people make MAJOR mistakes in writing that they simply cannot be bothered with keeping track of the proper commas. They just place commas on a random basis wherever they “feel like it”. It is sad. They don’t know what a random process is, either.

    One solution would to use commas in a firm, regulated way, as they do in the German language. For example, in German, ALL subordinate clauses are set off by a pair of commas, fore and aft; hence there are no confusions about “essential” or “nonessential” subordinate clauses. They are all punctuated in the same way in German, and it could be made the same way in English. Unfortunately, we do not have any “academy” of the language in the U.S.A. or even in England, and unlike any such academy in French or German.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, replace “wasn’t” with “weren’t”.
    Further, so many people in speech and writing use “there’s” even when the true subject of the sentence is plural. Such sentences require “there are”, and there is not a contraction for this. {there’re? No way!}

    Example: “There are apples and raisins in this pie! Yum-yum.”
    This is called a “Dutch apple pie”, but on the other hand, there is another kind of pie called a “Dutch apple pie”. Sadly.

    I went to a bakery in Alabama, I described a Dutch apple pie, and then I asked the bakers to back one for me. They said “No”. I had thought that a bakery was a place where one could ask for any kind of a pie, within reason, and they would bake it for you. Even if they didn’t know how to make a Dutch apple pie, there are cookbooks that tell one how to do it. You can also look up recipes on the Internet.

    If you go to a beauty salon or a hair cuttery, they are supposed to cut your hair any way that you want it, within reason. (No horse manure, though whipped cream might be O.K.)

    So many people would rather drag their feet than to learn anything new, even if there are $$$ to be made by tackling the problem and solving it.
    DAW

  • Mark Nichol

    Thanks for calling out the error of using wasn’t when weren’t is called for; the mistake has been corrected.

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