Accentuate the appositive

What’s an appositive? I thought I knew. I should know.

In my Editor’s Companion book I wrote:

“Commas are used to set off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses and phrases … In ‘Boston, the largest city in Massachusetts, was our home,’ ‘the largest city in Massachusetts’ is an appositive. ‘Boston’ and ‘the largest city in Massachusetts’ mean the same thing: ‘Boston was our home’ means the same thing as ‘The largest city in Massachusetts was our home.’”

So far, so good. But I stated, “Appositives are a particular type of nonrestrictive phrase.’” Wrong. Appositives can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. In the example above, the largest city in Massachusetts is indeed a nonrestrictive appositive.

“Have you been to the hamlet Florida in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts?” In that sentence the word Florida is an appositive too: a restrictive appositive. The hamlet doesn’t refer to Florida unless you provide that information by adding the word Florida, and Florida doesn’t necessarily denote a hamlet in the Berkshires.

Bonnie Trenga, in a guest appearance on the Grammar Girl website, explained that “an appositive is … a noun or a noun phrase that is placed next to another noun or noun phrase to help identify it.” It’s nonrestrictive if it gives extra information, and it’s restrictive if it adds essential information. “The rule for appositives is that if the information is essential, you don’t use commas. If it is extra, you use extra commas.”

That’s the same rule we follow for restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases (also called essential and nonessential phrases).

The idea is simple, but it’s kind of complicated to explain. And maybe we could use a simpler word than the four-syllable appositive. How about noun buddy?

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