Restrictive Appositives

By Maeve Maddox

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Bob asks:

Could you please explain restrictive appositives (Like, Have you read the novel
a Separate Peace). Where you don’t use commas. I find it a bit confusing.

If you need a refresher, an appositive is:

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames another noun right beside it. The appositive can be a short or long combination of words. Look at these appositive examples, all of which rename insect: The insect, a cockroach, is crawling across the kitchen table.

Nouns are said to be “in apposition” when a noun or noun phrase is used to identify, define, or tell more about a preceding noun.

When the appositive noun (the second one) is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it is said to be “restrictive.” In that case, no comma is used:

Have you read the novel A Separate Peace?

“A Separate Peace” specifies which novel is meant. It is necessary to the meaning of the sentence.

When the appositive noun provides additional information that can be omitted without altering the sentence’s main thought, it is said to be “nonrestrictive.”

George Clooney, the actor, is a social activist.

“The actor” is additional information. Commas are used to separate it from the main thought.

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4 Responses to “Restrictive Appositives”

  • John

    Should that not be commas, plural?

  • Emma

    I frequently see people write this with only the first comma and not the second, so your example would be written by them as “George Clooney, the actor is a social activist”. To me this no longer means that the speaker is no longer talking ABOUT the actor named George Clooney, but rather TO George Clooney about a person being referred to as “the actor”. I’ve seen this in both informal and formal writing, and even in the summary on the back cover of a novel.

    Please tell me I’m not the only one who is so annoyed with this.

  • Steve Shea

    @Emma – I agree – commas are sliding all over the place, often ending up where they don’t belong, or being conspicuous in their absence where they do. Apostrophes, on the other hand, only seem to proliferate.

    @Maeve – This was the clearest, most succinct explanation of appositives I’ve ever read. Thank you!

    I’m always amused at garbled appositives, and I wish I had an example handy to illustrate.

  • Precise Edit

    From our article on punctuating appositive ( ):

    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.

    Here is a sentence with a restrictive appositive:

    “The belief that he was alone led him to depression.”

    The restrictive appositive is “that he was alone.” This phrase renames “the belief,” and, as a noun phrase, it can also serve as the subject (though this will sound awkward to native English speakers).

    Why is this restrictive? The category “belief” has many things in it (i.e., contains many individual beliefs), and we want to indicate the one belief to which we are referring. We are restricting the broad category to a very narrow category, the broad category of beliefs to the narrow category of belief that he was alone. As such, this appositive is not set off with commas.

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