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I came across this question while studying for the SAT.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in the Virginia colony, which was still under the control of Great Britain at the time. Washington's _____ sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

A) grandfather, John Washington, had

B) grandfather John Washington had,

C) grandfather, John Washington had

D) grandfather John Washington, had

Though the answer is A, and I understand why it makes sense. The problem is, I wonder what the problem is with the answer choice C.

It looks as though 'Washington's grandfather,' can serve as an introductory appositive phrase modifying 'John Washington.'

Washington's grandfather, John Washington had ... -> Is there any problem with this sentence structure? Or is there anything I miss about an introductory appositive structure?

I'd really appreciate it if you could enlighten me. Thank you very much.

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  • You can sometimes put the appositive phrase before the noun offset by a comma, e.g. "The longest canal in the world, the Suez canal opened in 1869." But it's a bit odd in your example, to do with the length of the noun phrases and which is more important/relevant.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 7:45
  • 5
    Ask yourself this: How many grandfathers did George Washington have? Presumably, he had two, one on each side of the family, so strictly speaking the appositive NP is a defining one since it identifies which grandfather is being referred to. B would therefore be correct.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 7:57
  • @StuartF I wouldn't go along with you. Appositive modifiers are always post-head, not pre-head. In your example, "the Suez canal" is the appositive NP. It also requires a comma after the second "canal" in order to fully set it apart from the rest of the NP.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:15
  • The problem with C is context. You picture this: "[As] Washington's grandfather, John Washington sailed." Even with that setup, we are suddenly focusing on someone we never heard of. Maybe "Being his wife, Martha felt..." is closer to what you picture, but it too has no mooring. That's why everyone figures that grandfather is the subject and "John Washington" is an aside. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:53
  • John Washington is the great grandfather of George. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 17:46

6 Answers 6

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A non-defining renaming appositive (†and that is the default reading here, even though there were obviously two grandfathers) is a parenthetical, and of the five types of offsetting punctuation available for parentheticals, zero punctuation when used with parentheticals that are appositives is restricted to defining appositives. This leaves paired

  • (a) commas,
  • (b) dashes,
  • (c) brackets and
  • (d) ellipses.

Ellipses often wouldn't really be suitable here. Commas would be the unmarked choice. But they must be paired. Thus:

  • Washington's grandfather, John Washington, sailed from England ...
  • John Washington, Washington's grandfather, sailed from England ...

† Defining appositives exist, such as

  • My sister Mary is getting married [not my sister Jill]

though

  • Grandad Frank is eighty next month

is doubtless best regarded as using a unary title + name lexeme, and a parallel 'Grandfather John Washington' sounds unidiomatic.

..........

A comparable construction using a sentence-initial qualifying (purely descriptive or explaining reason ...) appositive would be offset by a single comma in an absolute construction:

  • A junior partner and importer in the tobacco trade, John Washington sailed from England to America in 1657 to procure a new cargo of tobacco in Virginia.

But reversing the noun phrases would again mandate a pair of offsetting commas (and remove the 'explanatory reason' reading).

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    It seems that Lawrence was actually the grandfather [in question] of the famous George (according to this Wikipedia article). Take the examples as being from a parallel world. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 18:45
  • Observe also that there is no answer choice among the four with zero punctuation. I doubt I'm alone among native speakers in not being so sure intuitively that zero punctuation wouldn't be acceptable (this is actually the first I've ever heard of a distinction between defining and renaming appositives), but the question-writer has granted the mercy of taking it out of the running. Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 2:53
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    @UnrelatedString Zero punctuation would certainly be acceptable; in that case you'd have a defining appositive, as in EA's "My sister Mary . . ." example. Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 5:45
  • Certainly acceptable? When does very clumsy-sounding trigger Orwell's Sixth Commandment? Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 12:01
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An appositive appearing at the beginning of a sentence is generally nonrestrictive (nonessential, nondefining, etc.). In answer choice C, such an appositive is followed by a comma, confirming that it is, in fact, nonrestrictive. However, that makes no sense; if the appositive were removed, then the reader would have no idea who this "John Washington" person was. Therefore, C is a bad choice.

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Consider the following sentences and what sets them apart:

Vicar of the parish, Josiah Jones, had skipped church that Sunday to get roaring drunk.

Vicar of a parish, Josiah Jones had skipped church that Sunday to get roaring drunk.

When we leave out the comma after Josiah Jones in the second sentence it is because "Vicar of a parish" is clearly merely an attribute of Josiah Jones; it is not the subject of the verb, and is not standing in apposition to Josiah Jones:

We can't say this (not really):

Vicar of a parish had skipped church that Sunday to get roaring drunk.

That wouldn't make much sense as it is so broad and vague. It would be like saying "CEO of a corporation had missed a meeting that day." "CEO of a corporation" is a descriptor.

In the first sentence which begins "Vicar of the parish", it is implicit that we had been speaking earlier about the parish. The definite article says so; it requires an antecedent and without one the story is beginning in medias res. In the second sentence, there is no implicit antecedent.

You are contending that "Washington's grandfather" could be regarded as merely an attribute of the subject, John Washington, and not itself the subject of the verb, although the phrase can stand equally well as the subject of the verb:

Washington's grandfather had sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

What militates against your view is this: generally, when we are talking about someone, our topic, and then change the focus to one of their forebears or to a sibling, say, in order to give further information about our topic, we normally treat the two noun phrases, the family relationship and the name, as apposite, and treating them as inapposite sounds "off" because doing so is tantamount to a change of topic, not an elaboration of the topic.

Which sentence would you prefer here?

Abel's brother, Cain, was the elder of the two. apposite

Abel's brother, Cain was the elder of the two. inapposite

We had been talking about Abel, implicitly, or once again we would have a statement made in medias res. The inapposite version makes Cain a new topic, and thus it is non-sequitur.

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The essence of the appositive is that

(i) it is offset from the main clause - usually by commas.

(ii) either the main noun or the appositive (together with the now redundant commas) can be removed without seriously affecting the sense of the clause:

Washington's grandfather had sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

John Washington had sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

Washington's grandfather, John Washington had sailed from England to North America...

This presents a sentence with two subjects in which the first is unconnected to anything that follows and gives the impression that "Washington's grandfather" may be some sort of interjection.

Compare: Jesus Christ! John Washington had sailed from England to North America...

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    Dear, dear, dear! An appositive NP is best defined as one which when substituted for the matrix NP systematically yields a clause which is an entailment of the original.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:10
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    @BillJ is what you said the same as I wrote in (ii) but in $10 words?
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 15:30
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Answer C) could be correct only if Washington’s great* grandfather makes sense as a reduced adverb clause:

Washington’s great grandfather, John Washington had sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

reduced from . . .

Being Washington’s great grandfather, John Washington had sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

reduced from . . .

Because he was Washington’s great grandfather, John Washington had sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.

Does that make sense? Hardly. Compare this, which could be justified:

Because he was Augustine Washington’s son, George Washington inherited the former Strother property and its slaves.

Being Augustine Washington’s son, George Washington inherited the former Strother property and its slaves.

Augustine Washington’s son, George Washington inherited the former Strother property and its slaves.

* John was George’s great grandfather; Lawrence was George’s grandfather.

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In that sentence, "John Washington" is essentially a nonrestrictive clause, which gives additional info about the preceding noun. Because it is just a bonus detail about Washington's grandfather, it must be delimited by a comma.

A nonrestrictive clause is the opposite of a restrictive clause, which plays a significant role in the meaning of the sentence. Unlike restrictive clauses, which are tied to pronouns/nouns (this is an example of a nonrestrictive clause), nonrestrictive clauses can be omitted without significantly altering the meaning or structure of the sentence. So in the sentence, the knowledge of Washington's grandfather's name is not important; therefore it is okay to remove his name.

More information: Walden University; Grammar: Relative, Restrictive, and Nonrestrictive Clauses

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    -1 "John Washington" is not a clause but a noun phrase functioning as an appositive of "grandfather".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:34
  • But essentially it is. An appositive phrase is a stripped-down version of a nonrestrictive clause. You can change "grandfather" to "whose name is John Washington" or anything similar and they still have the same function and usage in the sentence. Of course, they are all must be delimited by commas
    – hadward
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:44
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    I disagree. It's not at all a 'stripped down' clause, but simply an NP functioning as an appositive. The fact that the appositive NP could function as a subject rules it out as a being a kind of clause, cf. "John Washington sailed from England to North America". link.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:48
  • @BillJ So, if the NP can stand as the subject it must stand as the subject?
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 15:19
  • @Tim I said "as a subject", obviously meaning that we could say "John Washington sailed from England to North America after being granted land by King Henry VIII.", which complies with the definition: An appositive NP is one which when substituted for the matrix NP systematically yields a clause which is an entailment of the original. Compare, for example "We went to see the opera Carmen", where "Carmen" can substitute for the matrix NP to give "We went to see Carmen".
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 16:41

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