I'm trying to get some clarification on restrictive and non-restrictive appositives (specifically, names) when used at the end of a sentence (as well as multiple names in the form of a list).

My friend asks me who I invited to a party, and I tell him:

I invited my cousin, Bill.

Am I saying that . . .

a) I have one cousin and I invited him. His name is Bill.


b) The friend who asked the question is named Bill. I am telling Bill that I invited my cousin.

I specified in option A that I have only one cousin because I assume the comma causes the name to act as a non-restrictive appositive. If I had more than one cousin, and I wanted to say that I invited only the one named Bill, I would say "I invited my cousin Bill." (As a restrictive appositive.)

But then if I've got a list of cousins, does the punctuation change to a colon?

I invited my cousins: Bill, Jane, and Andrew.

3 Answers 3


If you’re addressing Bill, the question doesn’t arise, because we don’t use commas in speech. In writing, I invited my cousin, Bill suggests, as you say, only one cousin, whereas I invited my cousin Bill suggests there might also be cousins Jane and Andrew and perhaps more besides. If you’d organized some occasion for your extended family, and you said I invited my cousins Bill, Jane, and Andrew that, by analogy, might suggest that they you had cousins who were not invited. On the other hand, I invited my cousins, Bill, Jane, and Andrew might suggest that they were all the cousins you had. In practice, there are likely to be other clues in the linguistic and social environment helping to resolve any ambiguity.

You probably know that the use of commas in this way, and the designations ‘restrictive’ and ‘non-restrictive’ (alternatively, ‘defining’ and ‘non-defining’) are more usually applied to relative clauses. In the sentence I invited my cousin who lives in Australia, the clause who lives in Australia is restrictive and leaves open the possibility of cousins elsewhere. In I invited my cousin , who lives in Australia, the clause who lives in Australia is non-restrictive, and doesn’t. (The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ use the terms ‘integrated’ and ‘supplementary’, which seem preferable.)

  • Of your two examples in latter paragraph, one restrictive and one non-restricitve (sic), you suggest the first "leaves open the possibility of cousins elsewhere" and the second "doesn’t". Really, both examples leave open the possibility of other cousins with other names, living in Australia or elsewhere. What the first suggests is that the writer has another Bill cousin who lives elsewhere than Australia. Nov 18, 2011 at 15:09
  • @jwpat7: OK, bad example. The point is better made by omitting 'Bill', which I have now done. Nov 18, 2011 at 16:07
  • Now the examples look right. But "non-restricive" is sic. Nov 18, 2011 at 16:15
  • @jwpat7: Thanks, now corrected. (I have one hand in a bandage, which doesn't help.) Nov 18, 2011 at 16:34

After reading this I would say that option B is correct. If your cousin's name was Bill, that would be a restrictive appositive and there would be no comma.


To my eye, both A and B are technically valid interpretations of the phrase as you wrote it, but I'd definitely assume A unless the context somehow made it clear that B was meant.

I think there would be a difference in intonation (or emphasis?) between A and B if they were spoken, but it's lost in writing. I'm not quite sure how to describe the difference, but I feel I can definitely hear one when I sound them out in my head.

Anyway, in this case, "my cousin Bill" would seem generally appropriate (and unambiguous) to me whether you had more than one cousin or not. To my eye and ear, the use of the restrictive appositive here doesn't have to imply the existence of more than one alternative, any more than the use of the non-restrictive appositive would necessarily mean that the speaker has only one cousin. (After all, you could just say "I invited my cousin." even if you had more than one, if you thought it unimportant or evident from context which cousin you meant.)

As for the version with multiple cousins, using a colon as you did looks natural to me. However, it only works if the list of cousins ends the sentence; if I wanted to continue the sentence after the list, I'd probably resort to dashes, as in "I invited my cousins—Bill, Jane and Andrew—to the party." Or parentheses, if they were stylistically appropriate for the context.

(Of course, I'm not a native English speaker, so always take my advice with an appropriately sized grain of salt.)

  • I understand what you mean about emphasis. In speech, if my cousin's name was Bill, I would put the emphasis on "Bill" (I invited my cousin, Bill.) Whereas if my friend was Bill and I was answering him, I'd probably emphasize "cousin" (I invited my cousin, Bill.) Nov 18, 2011 at 15:58

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