Apposition and Anarthrous Premodifiers

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader wonders if this sentence containing nouns in apposition has enough commas:

As a club, we must extend our thoughts and deepest sympathies to John’s wife Hazel, and his children Matthew and Julia.

Commas with appositives

An appositive is a noun or noun element that follows another noun and serves to identify it further. The nouns are said to be “in apposition.”

An appositive phrase usually follows the word it explains or identifies, but it may also precede it.

The term derives from a Latin compound meaning, “to set beside or near.” Nouns in apposition are set beside one another. When one of the nouns simply restates the other one, commas are needed to set it off.

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth US president, ranks among the three worst presidents of the United States.

The phrase “the seventeenth US president” is just another way of saying “Andrew Johnson.” It provides additional information, but leaving it out would not change the meaning of the sentence. The additional information is non-essential, so it is set off with commas.

Take another example:

My English teacher says that Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is overrated.

Here, The Great Gatsby is in apposition to novel. Because Fitzgerald wrote more than one novel, the specific title is essential information. It cannot be omitted without obscuring the meaning of the sentence. The teacher does not necessarily think that the author’s other novels are overrated. No commas are needed when the additional information is essential.

In the sentence that prompted this post, the nouns in apposition restate the nouns that precede them. Because the information they provide is non-essential, commas are needed to set them off:

As a club, we must extend our thoughts and deepest sympathies to John’s wife, Hazel, and his children, Matthew and Julia.

NOTE: Just because information is grammatically non-essential doesn’t mean it lacks interest to the reader. All it means is that—because it could be left out without significantly changing the meaning of the sentence—commas are called for.

False Titles
A common type of apposition found principally in journalistic writing is the “false title.” This is a descriptive phrase placed before a noun, but used as if it were a title.

Novelist John le Carré has set himself up as the psycho-analyst of the cold war.—Time

Cellist Joshua Gordon, in the slow movement, showed off his rich, lyrical tone. Buffalo News

This construction is known as “a Time-style adjective” because it’s thought that Time magazine either began the practice or popularized it.

When commenting on the opening sentence of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Geoffrey Pullum called it an “anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier.”

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Pullum said that the construction is “reasonable” in a newspaper, but has the “wrong feel and style for a novel.”

The lovely word anarthrous has two quite distinct meanings. As a physiological term, it means, “jointless; or so fat as to appear so.” As a grammatical term, it means, “used without the article.”

Had Brown written, “The renowned curator Jacques Sauniére,” the sentence would have escaped criticism.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) classifies the false title as “journalese,” but at least one newspaper takes pride in avoiding it.

We try to avoid the unnatural journalistic mannerism of the ‘false title’ – that is, using a description or job designation with someone’s name as if it were a formal title. So we don’t refer to ‘novelist Zadie Smith’ or ‘cellist Yo-Yo Ma’.—Philip B. Corbett, New York Times standards editor.

The entry in the NYT style manual provides a test to identify a false title:

Do not make titles out of mere descriptions, as in harpsichordist Dale S. Yagyonak. If in doubt, try the “good morning” test. If it is not possible to imagine saying, “Good morning, Harpsichordist Yagyonak,” the title is false.

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