I know that commas are necessary in this situation:

"John Kerry, a Democratic candidate, made a speech today."

However, they don't seem necessary here:

"The kid, who owns toy cars, is nice."

Am I wrong about this? I just want to make sure.

Thanks for your time.

  • 1
    This is a matter of restrictive vs non-restrictive clauses. Both are correct, but are used in different situations. You should google that or ask on ELL for further clarification if you still have any concerns after some research (the first hit on Google should do).
    – Yay
    Dec 26, 2015 at 23:02
  • 1
    "The kid, who owns toy cars, is nice." means essentially "The kid we're talking about is nice (and did you know he owns some toy cars?)". "The kid who owns toy cars is nice." means essentially "That kid with the toy cars is nice." Dec 26, 2015 at 23:40
  • @EdwinAshworth Well it provides a convenient differentiation in that particular case. But how about John Kerry, a Republican candidate...? And what about Tiddles, the cat, died versus Tiddles the cat died? Are you suggesting that the former only be used with people who don't happen to know that Tiddles is the office cat, and might think, if you don't mention the fact, that you are talking about the Chairman's secretary?
    – WS2
    Dec 27, 2015 at 0:05
  • 1
    @WS2 I believe that the whole nature of 'appositives' needs to be better defined. In 'Tiddles, the cat, died' / 'Tiddles the cat died' the parenthetical is a true restatement of the initial noun phrase and is what I would prefer appositives to be restricted to.* Here, I believe the commas to be optional for setting off the parenthetical. With OP's second set of examples, the parenthetical is different in nature, being either an identifying (restrictive: no commas by convention) relative clause or a purely information-adding (nonrestrictive: commas necessary) relative clause. Dec 27, 2015 at 0:15
  • *Note that either 'Tiddles' or 'the cat' may be dropped without compromising the syntax. Dec 27, 2015 at 0:18

1 Answer 1


[i] John Kerry, a Democratic candidate, made a speech today.

[ii] The Democratic candidate John Kerry made a speech today.

It’s all about semantics. The commas are necessary in [i] to indicate that the noun phrase "a Democratic candidate" is supplemental information, useful perhaps, but not essential in enabling the reader to identify exactly who it was that made a speech today. Noun phrases set off with commas like this are called 'supplementary' (or 'non-restrictive') appositives.

Now consider [ii]. This time the appositive NP "John Kerry" is tightly integrated into the matrix NP; it provides essential information required to identify which Democratic candidate is being referred to. We understand that it was not just one of presumably several Democratic candidates who made a speech today, but specifically John Kerry. Appositives like this are called 'integrated' (or 'restrictive') appositives’.

[iii] The kid, who owns toy cars, is nice.

It’s an unlikely sentence, but nevertheless it is another supplementary construction – this time not an appositive noun phrase, but a relative clause. The writer is saying simply that the kid is nice. Owning toy cars is supplementary information, not essential in identifying which kid is being referred to. The fact that that "the kid" is a definite NP tells us that it is discourse-old, i.e. previously mentioned elsewhere.

If the writer had wanted to say that it is only the kid who has toy cars that is nice, then the commas would have been omitted, as toy car ownership would have been essential information in identifying which kid was being referred to.

  • In [i] the appositive is "a Republican candidate", but in [ii], "John Kerry" is. Which one is the appositive and which is the NP seems slightly arbitrary to me. Is it correct to say that the appositive is always the second NP (supposing it's not a "delayed appositive")? If so, does that mean that an appositive can't precede the NP? Btw, by "NP" I mean the one that is not the appositive (I don't know if there's a name for that).
    – Yay
    Dec 27, 2015 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Yay Yes, it's always the second NP that is the appositive modifier. The noun that is being modified is called the 'head' of the larger (matrix) NP. Which is why integrated appositives are called 'post-head' modifiers.
    – BillJ
    Dec 27, 2015 at 16:05

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