The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language makes a clear distinction between ascriptive and specifying supplements, and categorizes only the former as apposition. I believe 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.


A staunch supporter of democracy, Rob campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule.

Do these examples fall under what is designated as "apposition" among linguists?


All syntactic forms can be integrated in the syntactic structure or detached from it by means of punctuation. There is an "integrated vs supplementive" distinction that cuts across the language. I always think of the integrated sentence elements as more basic than those loosely attached to it. So, there are integrated NP elements and supplementive NP elements, integrated relative clauses and supplementive ones, integrated non-finite clause and supplementive ones etc. Here are some important characteristics of supplementation:

  • Regardless of the form, all supplement forms are understood as appendages to the core structure of the sentence.
  • Any supplement has an anchor in the main body of the sentence
  • Supplements are set off from the rest of the sentence by punctuation
  • There isn't one single syntactic or semantic relation between all forms of supplements and their respective anchors.

On the issue of terminology: for a long time, the term "apposition" has been used in linguistics to designate a very specific relation between two nouns. Using the term to mean "anything that you can possibly find enclosed within commas, parroting the previously said in related terms" shows a lack of understanding of the language structure, not only of this particular concept.

Now, for the question from the OP - neither of the introductory phrases in these sentences are appositive modifiers. Actually, the relation of apposition can never be established in this grammatical form: NP, Main clause. Even if the sentence is turned into a possible pattern, like:

Rob, a staunch supporter of democracy, campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule.

The NP "a staunch supporter of democracy" is still not an appositive modifier of "Rob". "A staunch supporter of democracy campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule" doesn't entail that it was "Rob" who campaigned. This fact clearly indicates that the phrase is not intended to specify who Rob is, but rather to ascribe a property to Rob.

To understand apposition it is advisable to start with the more basic, integrated pattern. What is exactly an appositive modifier? It is a unique type of a NOUN (post)modifier. What makes it unique? Firstly, it is a specifying modifier (as opposed to ascriptive ones) which further specifies the underspecified noun phrase. This explains why it is typically a proper noun . Secondly, noun-postmodifiers other than appositive ones are limited to meanings related to age, size..(CGEL 446). Finally, and most importantly, this modifier can take over for the whole NP without affecting the interpretation of the sentence. That said, this would be an example of an integrated appositive modifier:

My cousin Rob campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule.

Relative clauses can also be integrated or supplementive, and, like appositive modifiers, the integrated ones are also noun-postmodifiers. This is why we can think of specifying NPs and relative clauses as related, and can maybe group them together, among the wider group of forms functioning as supplements. Their primary functions are as modifiers within the noun phrase structure.

On the other hand, three other forms (among eleven in total illustrated in CGEL as possible supplement forms ) can be grouped together, based on their syntactic behavior: ascriptive NPs, adjective phrases and participial clauses. As supplements, these forms are to be understood as predicates, or else "subjectless clauses". The anchor for these is an NP in the main clause, functioning as the implied subject in these reduced clauses. Unlike apposition, which has a very specialized and limited use, these three forms of supplements are used very widely, in a variety of ways and positions.

  • It is permissible, even commonplace, to omit a comma after most brief introductory elements — a prepositional phrase, an adverb, or a noun phrase: Yesterday afternoon we sat around waiting for Bill to arrive. / By evening we had become impatient. / Jauntily he walked into the hall. // When a prepositional phrase expands to more than three words, say, or becomes connected to yet another prepositional phrase, the use of a comma will depend on the writer's sense of the rhythm and flow of the sentence. After his nap Figueroa felt better. / ... Feb 4 '20 at 13:58
  • [After taking a nap he felt better.] / After his long nap in the backyard hammock, Figueroa felt better. //// This is obviously contradictory to the sweeping third criterion you assert. {While this does not necessarily constitute a damning criticism, the fact that the claim above lacks authoritative reference, or a reference to which school the claim is made by (and thus acknowledgement that this is a view rather than fiat) does.} Feb 4 '20 at 14:06
  • @Edwin "They are normally set off from the rest of the sentence by punctuation marks.." .(CGEL 1350). Not the vitally important point here but okay :)
    – user97589
    Feb 4 '20 at 14:17
  • What I'm saying is: << Please show whether 'Here are some important characteristics of supplementation: 1/2/3/4' is from CGEL, the Beano, the Archangel Gabriel ... or homespun >>. Assuming that CGEL is infallible and doesn't need attribution as containing just one possible (quite possibly, often the best available) interpretation / labelling system is not what ELU is about. Feb 4 '20 at 14:37
  • It is not a word for word citation from CGEL or elsewhere, that wouldn't be helpful. Also, mining every single detail from it would be an arduous task. When I felt it necessary (a couple of times) I provided quotes from CGEL.
    – user97589
    Feb 4 '20 at 14:53

In one of the other answers to the question in the title @herisson says "as far as I can see there is not in fact a unanimous consensus among linguists on the definition of terms like "apposition"/"appositive" etc."

This is indisputable. For example, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (p32) says in its discussion of apposition:

Grammarians vary in how widely they apply the term apposition.

Peters in the section on apposition in The Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar (p40) states:

The term apposition refers to the juxtaposition of two grammatical units in a sentence with the same or similar referent. They may or may not have exactly the same grammatical structure, and it may or may not be possible to omit one of them without impairing the syntax of the sentence. Thus there are several parameters involved in apposition, on which grammarians diverge.

McCawley in The Syntactic Phenomena of English (p467) goes into more detail:

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.


There is little consensus as to the appropriateness of (i-iv) as criteria for 'apposition' or with regard to how to apply the criteria ... .

The index in A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language (Quirk et al., p1673) has over 25 sub-topics under the headings apposition and appositives, including attributive, partial, restrictive, nonrestrictive, strict, weak, clause., of-construction and many more.

It is of course legitimate to regard one particular grammar's treatment of the issue as the most persuasive (e.g.The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language's). But it is clear that the question What does the concept of “apposition” mean precisely? does not have a definitive answer.

To conclude, here is a small example of the difference in classification between the The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and the Oxford Modern English Grammar, which was published ten years later:

In the section Appositives vs complements (p446) the The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says of the sentence The suggestion that they cheated was quite outrageous:

The content clause (that they cheated) does not qualify as an appositive; it is a complement licensed by the head noun suggestion, just as in a clausal construction.

In the section called Clauses functioning as Complement in noun phrases (p123) the Oxford Modern English Grammar lists a set of nouns that take finite or non-finite clausal complements, for example chance, fact, idea, occasion, proposition, question and states:

Clauses that function as complements of nouns are often called appositive clauses.

The following sentence is included as one of the examples:

[ NP The fact [ clause that the accused was ignorant of the rules of English law]] will not afford any defence.

So, to finally answer the question at the end of the post, the two sentences cited are considered as examples of apposition by the author of the Wikipedia article in which they are listed, but not by The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

You may want to ask this or a similar question on Stack Exchange: Linguistics, which is no doubt frequented by more linguists than contribute here.


The answer by Rejlan Givens that says "for a long time, the term 'apposition' has been used in linguistics to designate a very specific relation between two nouns" gives only one of various definitions of "apposition" that have been used in linguistics. It is not the case that all linguists have historically defined apposition in such a way as to exclude predicates/"subjectless clauses".

There may be good reasons to use such a definition, but that isn't the same thing as saying that for a long time, the term "apposition" has only been used by linguists in the specific way that it is used by the authors of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CaGEL). Given that the question post says "answers to similar questions should refer to the diversity of opinions on what constitutes apposition" and asks about "what is designated as 'apposition' among linguists," this question appears to be at least in part about the actual history of the term "apposition", and not just about the best way to use the term in future works, or about the correct analysis of the phenomenon itself.

Unfortunately, I do not have an expert understanding of any alternative definitions of apposition, so I can't say how they compare in terms of rigor or consistency to the CaGEL definition, or whether any sources that use a broader definition have alternative terms that mean the same thing as CaGEL's narrower definition of "apposition". One source that I know of that seems to refer to alternative definitions is "Appositional constructions", by Herman Heringa, 2011. Heringa says that "O’Connor (2008) [...] argues that appositions underlyingly are non-restrictive relatives with a null relative pronoun as its subject" (p. 14) and mentions that Doron, E. (1994) ‘The discourse function of appositives’ argues that "appositions behave as nominal predicates" (p. 76).

Relevant previous ELU posts and comments:

  • I've read the forum threads you linked to, thank you! I'll also read the thesis when I have free time, it will be interesting to read the author's arguments in favor of this analysis. For now, I'll raise a couple other points that go against thinking about apposition as a specific form of a relative construction.
    – user97589
    Feb 5 '20 at 11:32
  • With the exception of the last sentence the OP's question is word for word the comment I made on another post (english.stackexchange.com/questions/524019/…). The key point I was making is the one you repeat in your answer above, namely that in my opinion answers to similar questions should refer to the diversity of opinions on what constitutes apposition. In general, if an answer is making a categorical (!) statement regarding classification or terminology, it is desirable to make clear whose analysis is being referred to.
    – Shoe
    Feb 9 '20 at 6:54
  • One cannot be sure whether those definitions make sense without understanding the wider context for the definition. However, I'm inclined to put most of the definitions of apposition that I've seen somewhere on the range between inadequate to completely illogical, rather than as part of a coherent grammatical model. For example, if the definition of apposition suggests that a clause has a referent, it can mean only one of the two things: 1. the author's definition of the term "referent" is different from the one widely adopted in linguistics 2. the definition of apposition is illogical
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 8:48
  • Or, if the definition of apposition states that an appositive noun phrase is to be understood as a reduced relative construction, as some theories obviously suggest, it can mean only one of the two things: 1. the author has a different definition of a relative clause 2. the definition of apposition is flawed. I really don't see how one can choose not to be categorical about his claims in such cases. So, if one defines apposition as "The term apposition refers to the juxtaposition of two grammatical units in a sentence with the same or similar referent." it is fine, as long as..
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 8:53
  • ..the grammatical unit is an NP or the term "referent" doesn't mean "something in the real world that the word or phrase denotes or stands for". The author using the term "grammatical units" clearly suggests that the "unit" can be anything, that is, apposition is not limited to noun phrases. CGEL defines apposition as a relation between noun phrases, no other grammatical form can be conceptualized as an appositive to a noun phrase.
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 8:59

I'll discuss some more supplementive ascriptive NPs as illustrated in the OP:

  1. A staunch supporter of democracy, Rob campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule.

  2. Rob, a staunch supporter of democracy, campaigned against the king's authoritarian rule.

Noun and adjective phrases are semantic predicates in be-clauses and it doesn't pose a problem to understand them as grammatical predicates, or reduced clauses, for all their lacking both the subject and the verb. The verb "be" is easily dispensed of, having no semantic contribution to the interpretation of the clause.

If we want to say anything else about the referent/anchor NP, other than to specify or ascribe a property to it, we'll have to reach for a non-finite clause as a supplement, that is, a clause that contains a verb.

  1. My cousin Rob, having a bone to pick with the king, campaigned against the royalists.

  2. Having a bone to pick with the king, my cousin Rob campaigned against the royalists.

Obviously, if we take ascriptive NPs to be "reduced relative clauses", we will then have to include under the definition not only "nominal predicates" but also adjective phrases, and all participial clauses as well. It is really difficult to see a significant difference between these supplement forms.

Among other inconsistencies, adopting this view will lead us to a tough choice: we'll either have to get rid of the definition of relative clauses as a "structure with an anaphoric element whose interpretation is determined by antecedent", or we'll have to posit that only the structure illustrated in sentence 2 above is an instance of a reduced relative clause, but not the one with the fronted predicate, which obviously doesn't meet the defined criteria. (all grammar theory aside, supplying a relativizer "who (is)" in 1 would be nonsensical)

It makes more sense to say that the structure illustrated in these sentences is systematically the same. I'd go as as far as to say that it is grammatically rather dissimilar from relative clauses.

The case against defining ascriptive NP supplements as reduced relative clauses can be made even stronger of course, but it would take a serious analysis, more time and forum space. Specifying NPs (especially as appositive noun modifiers) are somewhat more similar to relative clauses both semantically and grammatically. They are still rather strikingly different structures, and I can't see them included under the same heading in a grammar book.


Having varying definitions of apposition floated around doesn't mean that this concept is so obscure that it resists definition. Trying to find some middle ground between different definitions of apposition would be a waste of time. The authors of CGEL give a thorough treatment of apposition which includes convincing arguments against analyzing unrelated constructions as appositives. Their definition of apposition is perfectly consistent with the grammatical model they expounded in the book.

Analyzing any syntactic point in detail requires a thorough understanding of the given grammatical model. So if the author decides to include relative clauses, content that-clauses etc. under what they refer to as "apposition", it may work within the grammatical model they developed, if it is done consistently. The problem is that it is often not the case.

I'll try one of the definitions offered here and apply it to the example of "appositive that-clause" provided in the same post:

The term apposition refers to the juxtaposition of two grammatical units in a sentence with the same or similar referent.

The problem I have with this one is in the use of the term "grammatical units" (which implies that the author of the definition has in view a range of grammatical forms) and its mismatch with the term "referent". "Referent" is defined as "the thing in the world that a word or phrase denotes or stands for." I wonder how we could fit a clause into this definition of "referent" as a "thing in the world". What kind of a referent can the clause "The accused was ignorant of the rules of English law" have in the real world?

[ NP The fact [ that the accused was ignorant of the rules of English law]] will not afford any defence.

A noun phrase, on the other hand, by definition have a referent in the real world - something that we can identify as a sort of an entity being referred to.

The fact is that both that-clauses used as in the sentence above and NP appositives are pretty much fixed positionally, following the noun head, but it doesn't provide enough argument for their identical treatment. On the contrary, doing so obscures the true purpose and function of both that-clauses and NPs as noun dependents.

One difference between the specifying NPs and that-clauses is in their different entailment relation with the head. The specifying NP can, without exception, stand for the NP it modifies. A "that-clause" noun complement, on the other hand, may or may not stand for the NP head, as illustrated in the example from CGEL:

The excuse that he gave, that the train had been late, seemed to satisfy the boss.

Probably the easiest way to understand the difference between the two is by looking into the properties of that-clause noun complements. The striking characteristic of these clauses is that they can be used with a pretty limited number of nouns. They are accepted only with nouns belonging to a specific semantic class. Typical ones are nouns derived from verbs like belief, guess, promise, assumption etc. and adjectives like possibility, confidence etc. This means that noun modification with a that-clause can be compared to the modification of verbs and adjectives by the same clause: He assumed that.. His assumption that.. The probability that.. It is probable that.. etc. This is so unlike noun phrases in the appositive function. The appositive NP is typically a proper name whose head can basically be anything that can be named.

The difference between other formal categories that are lumped under the concept of apposition and the specifying NP modifier of a noun is far more pronounced. In my previous post I said that analyzing an ascriptive NP supplement as a reduced relative clause would require getting rid of the definition of a relative clause as an anaphoric relation between an NP and its antecedent. Ascriptive NPs, adjective and participial clauses are strikingly different from appositive NP supplements. For one thing, they are very mobile and versatile syntactic constructions. I've discussed their properties at length in another thread, so I'll not repeat the same here.

Finally, what I see as the general idea common to these varying definitions of apposition is the idea of "interruption" or maybe "appendage". It seems that most think of apposition as anything that can be stuffed between commas and that is in some way related to something in the main body of the clause. The problem comes from the fact that any possible grammatical form can be presented as an interruption to the normal flow of the sentence, and literally anything can be enclosed in commas. Of course, we will want to refer to these interruptions by one single term, but this term is very general. CGEL opted for the term "supplement".

The fact is that relative clauses, appositive NPs, content that-clauses, adjectives, nouns and all other syntactic forms can either be detached from or integrated in the sentence structure. They are no more or less related as supplements than they are as integrated in the sentence structure.

  • "A noun phrase, on the other hand, by definition have a referent in the real world - something that we can identify as a sort of an entity being referred to." Is this always true? This means that the noun phrase "the lateness of the train" has a referent but the clauses "the train was late" or "the train being late" do not, which is hard for me to understand. Also, wouldn't ascriptive NPs be an example of non-referential NPs?
    – herisson
    Feb 8 '20 at 22:22
  • You'll need a semanticist or a philosopher to answer you that question :) In linguistics there's a difference between the terms "referent" and "reference". The term referential (as opposed to ascriptive, non-referential) is derived from "reference" and could be glossed as "precisely specifed" or even better as "reference specifying". "Referent", on the other hand, should be thought of an object or an idea which is definable in the real world. You can use this Wikipedia definition as a starting point for a further research.
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 5:41
  • In fields such as semantics, semiotics, and the theory of reference, a distinction is made between a referent and a reference. Reference is a relationship in which a symbol or sign (a word, for example) signifies something; the referent is the thing signified. The referent may be an actual person or object, or may be something more abstract, such as a set of actions.
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 5:42
  • In my view, in the noun phrase "the lateness of the train" what we talk about in the end is "lateness", albeit further specified as "train's lateness". The noun "latenes" is the ultimate head of the phrase - what the phrase is about. In other words, I don't have difficulty idenrifying the referent in the real world - a definable concept that I can form an idea about in my mind. On the other hand, I don't think I can do that in the case of a clause. In "She is late" I can't say whether it is more about her or lateness, or how I can think about these two concepts as a single referent.
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 6:00
  • There's also a time reference involved, so the whole construction is removed from what would be a single concept. When we have more than one argument it is even clearer that we cannot think of a clause as having a referent in the real world. If i say "He hit the ball" , what am I talking about? About him, or a ball or hitting? This is what I meant when I said that I couldn't understand what a clausal referent could possibly be.
    – user97589
    Feb 9 '20 at 6:09

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