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I have written this paragraph as part of a review. I believe it is correct grammar but can't pinpoint the logic behind the use of the comma or the it is. I don't know the name of this kind of structure or usage. Can anyone help?

A black comedy that at times evolves into a tense thriller and at others shows hints of horror, it is an original, gripping, and disturbing tale of pervasive class tension, oppression, and helplessness.

Thanks a lot in advance.

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  • If you wrote the passage, what logic made you add the comma and it is? I'd put a full stop where the comma is and have it as two sentences. Jan 30, 2020 at 12:23
  • The problem is I think it sounds correct but I don't know why! I don't think a full stop would work there. "A black comedy" doesn't have its own verb. Since in the first part of the sentence I have a noun phrase and then a subordinate adjective clause it seemed more correct to put a comma and then add the verb.
    – Adrastea
    Jan 30, 2020 at 12:35
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    Non-native speaker The introductory noun phrase "A black comedy.." can be thought of as a reduced clause (following the terminology used in The Cambridge Grammar of the English language - "verbless clause"). It is predicated of the subject "It" in the main clause. Other forms (especially participial clauses) are more common in this position. There is a set phrase "N + as X is/was." that resembles your sentence : (from Oliver Twist) : "Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery."
    – user97589
    Jan 30, 2020 at 12:51
  • I have now realized that if I invert the order of the sentence it works better: "It is an original, gripping, and disturbing tale of pervasive class tension, oppression, and helplessness, a black comedy that at times evolves into a tense thriller and at others shows hints of horror." Do you think the original is correct? Thanks for your insight Rejlan Givens.
    – Adrastea
    Jan 30, 2020 at 13:01
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    @RamPillai - That’s not the skeletal sentence. That sentence defines what a black comedy is. OP’s sentence is describing an unnamed play(?) as being a black comedy; one that at times evolves into a into ...
    – Jim
    Jan 31, 2020 at 14:37

2 Answers 2

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The sentence from the OP illustrates the use of a highly versatile and common syntactic construction, which in simple terms can be described as: Predicate + Main Clause. Here's another sentence illustrating this syntactic pattern:

"A long-time favorite of critics, Timothy Oliphant is set to win this year's Oscar. "

The introductory noun phrase : "A long-time favorite of critics" ("A black comedy.." in the OP) is understood as predicated of the following NP "Timothy Oliphant". Or, to put it differently, the introductory NP has a clausal character. (if you wish, you can call it "I'll borrow the subject from the main clause" construction")

Now, here's the same sentence, with an added comma, representing a case of apposition:

"A long time favorite of critics, Timothy Oliphant, is set to win this year's Oscar."

The intention here is quite different - we want to precisely specify the person/thing that is "a long time favorite of critics". Apposition, thus, is a term used for a concept/idea/construction with a far narrower meaning and use. We can predicate anything about anyone or anything, in any possible syntactic form, while apposition is a quite limited concept, both semantically and formally. What strikes first from the sentences illustrating apposition is that the appositive pattern is fixed: "NP comma NP comma" - the appositive modifier is set off by commas (with the exception of two examples from CGEL illustrating detached appositive modifiers as a minor usage ) Not only that, the order is fixed too: anchor + appositive modifier. This sharply contrasts with the other construction explained here. The ascriptive NP from the first sentence is almost free-floating - we can move it around like: "Timothy Oliphant, a long-time favorite of critics, is set to win this year's Oscar" (again, this is not a case of apposition).

I found a thorough treatment of apposition in Quirk's "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". I've read the part concerning what the authors termed "non-restrictive apposition", which is at issue here: ("supplementive apposition" in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language). Here's what is said there:

Apposition is primarily and typically a relation between two noun phrases...... In non-restrictive apposition the two NPs contribute relatively independent information, with the first appositive acting as the DEFINED expression, and the other appositive having a DEFINING role ("the definer"). The defining role is reflected in the fact that the second appositive is marked as parenthetic by punctuation or intonation.

Here's a useful clue : the template: "NP comma Main Clause" will never be understood as an apposition. The two adjacent NPs in this construction will never be read as "The Defined Expression + The Definer". As I said multiple times, these two NPs will be in a Subject+Predicate relation.

Another useful clue: the template: "NP comma, NP, comma" will typically, but not necessarily be an apposition. Only if the two NPs stand in the "The Defined - The Definer" relation will this construction be understood as a unique sort of a relation/construction that people termed "apposition". This example from CGEL nicely illustrates this point: "Kim Jones, a quite outstanding student, won a scholarship at MIT" . This is not a case of apposition - "a quite outstanding student" doesn't specify "Kim Jones", it "..expresses a property that is ascribed to Kim Jones". This is clearly set out in the definition provided in this grammar book: "The construction with a SPECIFYING NP as supplement is known as apposition".

As with any other syntactic construction, tons could be said about this one too. One less striking but very interesting aspect, for example, would be the use of pronouns as appositives. The appositive modifier is supposed to specify, but how can you specify something with a pronoun? "A black comedy, it, .. ". (Using "this", "that" etc. will similarly preclude this construction, e.g "this actor" instead of Timothy Oliphant in the second example above will make the sentence unreadable. Notice also that the anchor can be a pronoun: "We the supporters of.. ")

Apposition is all about being more specific about what the person has just referred to. I refer to X and then I refer to X again, only now in more specific terms. That's all there is to this construction. I believe there are good reasons for setting it apart from a superficially similar, but fundamentally different construction. We want to group similar ideas together, and to distinguish them from dissimilar ones. This is why I said earlier that we shouldn't label the NP from the OP sentence as apposition - it is not a minor terminological point. It is not about one or the other term, it is about what these terms represent, and why they were introduced in the first place.

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  • Thanks for your detailed and informative answer. The CGEL makes a clear distinction between ascriptive and specifying supplements, and categorizes only the former as apposition. But the main point I was making in my other comments was that answers to similar questions should refer to the diversity of opinions on what constitutes apposition. For example, the Wikipedia (yes, I know!) article includes the following examples: The first to arrive at the house, she unlocked the front door and A staunch supporter of democracy, Rob campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule.
    – Shoe
    Feb 3, 2020 at 12:05
  • I would still be interested in your analysis of my reordered sentence: It is an original, gripping, and disturbing tale of pervasive class tension, oppression, and helplessness, a black comedy that at times evolves into a tense thriller and at others shows hints of horror in which the black comedy phrase could be regarded as a reduced non-restrictive relative clause whose antecedent is tale.
    – Shoe
    Feb 3, 2020 at 12:05
  • Hi Shoe! Interestingly, I've just been checking a couple of forum threads on appositives, and I must say that there is a lot of confusion about what the term is supposed to entail. I'll supply another answer here to point to what I believe are the main problems in defining and understanding apposition. I'll answer your questions and comment on the examples you offered. For now I'll just say that, both of the two most referred-to , and most comprehensive grammar textbooks define "apposition" as a relation of "specified-specifier". This definition makes sense to me for a number of reasons.
    – user97589
    Feb 3, 2020 at 12:20
  • Reading the forum threads, I've found a number of suggestions that go against the accepted definition. Some contributors, for example, suggested thinking of it as "reduced relative clauses", which matches other analyses I came across here. Basically, people tend to understand "apposition" as anything that is found enclosed in commas, typically somewhere in the middle of the sentence. That seems to be a prevalent idea. This means that any noun phrase that follows another noun phrase and is set off by commas (or even only one comma, at the end of the sentence) is understood as apposition.
    – user97589
    Feb 3, 2020 at 12:27
  • Rejlan. I look forward to your analysis of the issue. You might want, however, to make your insights the answer to a question that you yourself ask. This is permissible here. In that way it will not be buried in this particular thread, and it will allow others to post their own thoughts and insights.
    – Shoe
    Feb 3, 2020 at 12:30
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Though there are various overlapping/conflicting definitions of the terms 'apposition / appositives' (see McCawley's balanced but now dated overview [McCawley: The Syntactic Phenomena of English ... p 467]) (and grateful thanks to @Shoe here), the following is based on one (broader) definition:

[The] appositive – [usually] a noun or noun phrase that identifies[, adds description to] or renames another noun – is a handy way of adding details to a sentence. The term comes from the Latin word for "placing close by," and an appositive usually appears right after the word or phrase that it renames.

[Here is] one example of an appositive [(shown in italics and set off by commas)]:

  • He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes.

[ThoughtCo_R Nordquist]

....................

Showing different functions of appositives:

  • A renaming example: William F Cody, Buffalo Bill, was an American soldier, hunter, and showman.
  • An identifying example: The Mallard, the world's fastest steam locomotive, was built in 1938
  • A descriptive example: The Mallard, a fine example of locomotive streamlining, can be seen at York.

(Appositives in the usual postnominal parenthetical position, set off by commas.)

....................

Arranging Appositives

A [nounal] appositive most often appears directly after the noun it identifies[, adds description to] or renames:

  • Arizona Bill, "The Great Benefactor of Mankind," toured Oklahoma with herbal cures and a powerful liniment.

Note that this appositive, like most, could be omitted without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. In other words, it's nonrestrictive and needs to be set off with a pair of commas.

Occasionally, an appositive may appear in front of a word that it identifies:

  • A dark wedge, the eagle hurtled earthward at nearly 200 miles per hour.

An appositive at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma.

[Note that descriptive appositives can hardly meaningfully replace the other noun phrase, but may do so with no compromising of syntax. With the 'Hindu' example above, one could argue as to which noun phrase is the descriptor.]

[again, Nordquist]

So in

A black comedy that at times evolves into a tense thriller and at others shows hints of horror, it is an original, gripping, and disturbing tale of pervasive class tension, oppression, and helplessness.

The noun phrase (italicised) is in apposition to it, and precedes the [pro]noun that it in this case adds description to. The expected comma separates the sentence-initial appositive from the noun it adds description to. Note that, as mentioned in comments, 'it' must have an antecedent in the preceding sentence / fragment.

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  • Nice to see that you are still providing English learners with your pro-bono language advice Edwin :) As for this one, I don't think that the introductory noun phrase qualifies as apposition here. The reasons for it are nicely laid out on page 1358 of CGEL, you may want to check it. In a nutshell, for it to qualify as apposition, removing the "anchor" (it) would have to mean the same as the original sentence. Here, obviously, it doesn't: A black comedy .. is a gripping.. doesn't mean the same as the original. The introductory noun phrase is an "ascriptive NP supplement".
    – user97589
    Jan 30, 2020 at 16:46
  • The two examples provided on the page illustrate the point very nicely: "United will be playing at home, a not inconsiderable advantage". "A die-hard conservative, her father refused to even consider the proposal".
    – user97589
    Jan 30, 2020 at 16:50
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    @Rejlan Givens. McCawley on p. 467 of The Syntactic Phenomena of English states: "Various authors have proposed criteria for identifying a combination of two expressions as 'apposition', the most popular ones being (i) that the two expressions have identical reference; (ii) that they be of the same syntactic category; (iii) that either of them can be omitted without affecting the acceptability of the sentence; and (iv) that either of them can be omitted without affecting how the remaining constituents are interpreted."
    – Shoe
    Jan 31, 2020 at 7:22
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    McCawley goes on to say: There is little consensus as to the appropriateness of (i-iv) as criteria for 'apposition' or with regard to how to apply the criteria ... In view of this lack of consensus it seems that it is important, in any discussion of the issue, to state whose definition is being used. The answer above does that, but could also make the point that this is not the only interpretation. (A more detailed answer to the present question could also discuss fronting and theme/topic as expounded by Halliday in Functional Grammar.)
    – Shoe
    Jan 31, 2020 at 7:37
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    Sorry, Edwin. I have the book.
    – Shoe
    Jan 31, 2020 at 18:48

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