The Difference Between Appositives and Descriptions
It is important for writers to distinguish between appositives and mere descriptions. A noun is said to be in apposition when it is set off from another noun that refers to the same idea. The phrase “set off” is significant, because a pair of commas separate the parenthetical apposition from its referent noun by a pair of commas. A description, however, needs no such bracketing.
For example, take a look at this sentence: “Here’s what the CEO of Chrysler Sergio Marchionne said to his employees in a blog post.” “The CEO of Chrysler” and “Sergio Marchionne” are one and the same — appositive — so one or the other needs to be framed by commas. This can be accomplished in one of several ways:
“Here’s what the CEO of Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne, said to his employees in a blog post.”
“Here’s what Sergio Marchionne, (the) CEO of Chrysler, said to his employees in a blog post.” (The optional the is often omitted in journalistic contexts and retained in more formal writing.)
“Here’s what Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler’s CEO, said to his employees in a blog post.” (This is a less formal variant of the previous two options.)
A description, meanwhile, such as the job title in this case, is followed directly by the name without intervening punctuation, and no comma should follow the name, either: “Here’s what Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said to his employees in a blog post.”
The first sentence in each of the following pairs appeared in a printed or online publication with commas framing the name as if it was an appositive — an error, and a distressingly common one. But notice below the differences between the statements labeled “Description” and the ones marked as “Apposition.” In a description, both the descriptive phrase and the name it applies to are essential; without either one, the sentence is incomplete. However, an apposition, being parenthetical, can be omitted without altering the integrity of the sentence.
Description: “Ex-reservist and current war gamer Mike Brown admits his battle tactics may be a bit too aggressive for a real-life situation.”
Apposition: “Mike Brown, an ex-reservist and current war gamer, admits his battle tactics may be a bit too aggressive for a real-life situation.”
Description: “Kitchen queen Nigella Lawson comes to town, shops, chops, cooks, and raves about our produce.”
Apposition: “Nigella Lawson, the kitchen queen, comes to town, shops, chops, cooks, and raves about our produce.”
Description: “Conservative radio jock Michael Savage gets his own TV show.”
Apposition: “A conservative radio jock, Michael Savage, gets his own TV show.” (The person’s name can come first, as in the previous examples, without a change in meaning, though the focus changes.)
Description: “The San Francisco–based schooner C.A. Thayer begins a $9.6 million overhaul.”
Apposition: “The C.A. Thayer, a San Francisco–based schooner, begins a $9.6 million overhaul.” (If the schooner has already been referenced generically, the sentence should read something like this: “The San Francisco–based schooner, the C.A. Thayer, begins a $9.6 million overhaul.”)
Description: “The Emeryville studio Pixar hopes to cash in on its fish flick.”
Apposition: “The Emeryville studio, Pixar, hopes to cash in on its fish flick.” (If two or more studios, each located in a different city, were previously mentioned, this sentence is correct. Otherwise, something like “Pixar, the Emeryville studio, hopes to cash in on its fish flick” would be appropriate.)
Description: “Bryan Young is editor of the blog Big Shiny Robot.”
Apposition: “Bryan Young is editor of the blog, Big Shiny Robot.” (The comma is necessary to indicate that the blog was already mentioned, but not by name. If not, the comma signals, fallaciously, that Big Shiny Robot is the only blog in existence.)
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