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An appositive is a noun that immediately follows another noun in order to clarify it.
An appositive usually follows the noun it explains or identifies, but it may also precede it.
Restrictive appositives (essential to the sentence) are not set off with commas while nonrestrictive appositives are set off with commas.

1st Question:
How do you determine which is the appositive? Is this something that the writer decides, or is this dictated by the sentence structure?

For example, consider the following sentence in which the appositive comes before.

A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

Then, consider the next sentence in which the appositive comes after.

Our pediatrician, André Wilson, was born in California.

Both sentences are very similar. Why does the appositive comes first in one but last in the other?

By the way, this question is more rhetorical. Despite their near similarity, any native English speaker can quickly see how these two sentences differ. But, your answer will help you with the next question.

2nd Question:
If an appositive can come before the noun, how would commas be treated if we add a few words to the beginning of the sentence? Let's look at the first sentence in the previous example.

I went to the museum because a bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

If Wassily Kandinsky is the subject and "a bold innovator" is the appositive, shouldn't it be surrounded with commas? Wouldn't the correct sentence be:

I went to the museum because, a bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

But, this looks strange. What do we do?

Original Issue

By the way, I am asking this question because I had trouble figuring out the following sentence. It completely stumped me.

I use the upper left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

If the appositive is "the upper left key", then it's non-restrictive and commas are necessary. So, wouldn't you have to write it like this?

I use, the upper left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

But, if the appositive is "the ` key", then it's restrictive and commas are unnecessary. So, it should be written like this:

I use the upper left key the ` key to open and close Chrome.

But, it would seem that the best way to write this sentence like this, but it doesn't seem to conform to the rules of grammar.

I use the upper left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

In this case, the appositive is "the ` key" and it's restrictive. Yet, I put a comma after "left key".

Very confusing...

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3 Answers 3

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  • A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colourful abstract paintings

may be paraphrased

  • Wassily Kandinsky – who is a bold innovator – is known for his colourful abstract paintings.

The essential reference to the referent here is Wassily Kandinsky: I'd see [a]/A bold innovator as an appositive adding detail (compare the non-defining, aka parenthetical, relative clause in the paraphrase). Dropping the name to leave A bold innovator is known for his colourful abstract paintings is obviously infelicitous.

With the second example, the roles are reversed:

  • Our paediatrician, André Wilson, was born in California.
  • Our paediatrician, whose name is André Wilson, was born in California.

Dropping Our pediatrician seems the less felicitous deletion.

It makes sense to me to class the non-central NPs as the detailing appositives here.

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

However, I see

  • I use the upper left key, the ` key, to open and close Chrome

as using a redefining/renaming appositive, with neither NP the more fundamental one. This needs the parenthetical structure (two commas; brackets or dashes would 'decentralise' the second element making it a precising parenthetical and the first NP the more fundamental. Switching the NPs is more significant if brackets or dashes are used.) With the commas, I couldn't identify which NP is the appositive, as we've seen that arbitrarily saying 'the second' doesn't work if one accepts the appositive as the less fundamental of the two NPs, whatever the order.

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    Aren't you forgetting that an appositive NP is always a post-head modifier?
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 18:34
  • I had trouble following your last paragraph. Say I believe the appositive is "the ` key" and it's restrictive. (There are many possible upper-left keys.) Would you take out all commas? Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 19:09
  • No, I've never felt the need to change from the position 'An appositive can come before or after the main noun'. See for example [Sarah Andersen at San José State University Writing Center](sjsu.edu › docs › handouts › Appositi..). Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 15:10
  • @BillJ: It would be very helpful if you could provide a link or a reference, not to establish your bona fides but to aid readers who might want to read up on a particular topic.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 20:51
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    @TimR. The concept of headedness is treated differently by different grammarians. I suggest you formulate your comment here as a separate question in order to get a full answer from one of this site's grammar experts. Creating a new question would give you the chance to outline what you were "educated to see as appositives."
    – Shoe
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 12:55
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First, about the commas. Those are printing signs, not linguistic ones. But if you're a native speaker, you can hear and recognize the intonation they're aiming to produce in the reader's mind's ear. It's the same intonation curve that parenthesizes non-restrictive relative clauses, e.g,

  • Wassily Kandinsky, (who was) a bold innovator, is known for his colorful abstract paintings.
  • André Wilson, (who is) our pediatrician, was born in California.

These sentences (with the addition of the syntactic rule of Whiz-Deletion) mean the same as two of your example sentences; the others are less likely to occur:

  • A bold innovator, (who was named/called) Wassily Kandinsky, is known for his colorful abstract paintings.
  • Our pediatrician, (who is named/the man you know as) André Wilson, was born in California.

Second, the definition of "appositive" that you're using is flawed. An appositive phrase is a noun phrase following another, coreferential, noun phrase, at the speaker's pleasure. They don't precede; they follow.

Thus one normally finds names coming first, then descriptions, just like relative clauses. Indeed, relative clauses that undergo Whiz-Deletion are the likely source of most appositives.

So (I forget whether this is question 1 or question 2) the answer is that if you can make a relative clause starting with a Wh-word and some form of be (who was, which is, etc.), then you can delete them and form an appositive (or a participle, or some other form of reduced relative). This works also for restrictive relative clauses, like my son the doctor with no commas, or the man standing on the corner wearing a raincoat.

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  • Why do you say that an appositive phrase always follows? There are many online sources that state differently. Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 18:42
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    As you say, from that definition it's impossible to distinguish which is the coreferent NP and which is the appositive NP, so the null hypothesis is that the appositive is the one that follows. We know that happens. The "may also precede" is typical handwaving to avoid stating a rule based on evidence. Don't believe everything you read online. Especially about English grammar. Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 18:46
  • So, are you saying sources like the following are wrong? literaryterms.net/appositive Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 18:53
  • Also, can you explain what meant when you said I shouldn't believe everything I read online? My understanding is that there isn't one authoritative source for grammar. So, grammar rules are really about consensus. It's what the "experts" collectively believe at any one time. Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 18:58
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    I've not aware that a relative, or any kind of clause, can be an appositive. In my experience, an appositive is an NP; e.g "We went to see the opera Carmen".
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 12:38
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After reading everyone's responses and thinking long and hard, I think I found a solution that makes sense.

Contrary to a few experts here, I think an appositive can precede a noun but only if the appositive starts the sentence. Another phrase or clause cannot precede the appositive because it's too difficult to identify the appositive. For example, let's consider:

A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

Here, an appositive (a bold innovator) precedes a noun. I think it's pretty clear to a native English speaker that the main subject is Wassily Kandinsky, not the bold innovator. Wassily Kandinsky is what the writer wants to focus on and is the subject of "is". I think it's difficult to argue that "a bold innovator" can be the focus of the sentence.

I hope you agree an appositive can precede a noun!

Now, let's consider when we add a clause in front of that sentence.

I know that, a bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

According to the rules of grammar, we would need to put a comma after "that" because "a bold innovator" is a non-restrictive appositive. I've never seen such comma usage before, and I can understand why. After the first clause, the mind expects the first subsequent noun to be the subject. But, it's an appositive, something we don't expect. So, it makes the sentence structure too complex and makes reading too difficult.

Consequently, an appositive can only precede a noun if the appositive starts the sentence.


Now, let's consider the next example which reinforces all of the above.

I use an upper-left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

I read this sentence a few times, trying to figure out which is the appositive. I believe this is the unusual case when the noun can either be "the upper left key" or "the ` key". It's up to the writer. So, the sentence can be written to mean either:

I use an upper left key (specifically, the ` key) to open and close.

or:

I use the ` key (which is an upper left key) to open and close.

If it's the former (a non-restrictive appositive preceding the noun), then the proper punctuation is:

I use, an upper-left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

If it's the latter (a restrictive appositive following the noun), then the proper punctuation is:

I use an upper-left key the ` key to open and close Chrome.

Both sentences are troublesome. In the former, just like the example at the start of this discussion, our mind expects the immediate subsequent noun to be the object. Once again, an appositive that precedes a noun (but is located in the middle of a sentence) makes reading too difficult. This reinforces the rule that an appositive can only precede a noun if starts the sentence.

In the latter sentence, as written, I think the absence of commas is grammatically correct. It's slightly difficult to read but actually fine. (English isn't perfect. 😃) I might even reluctantly rewrite the sentence so it would read:

I use the ` key, an upper-left key, to open and close Chrome.

What do you guys think?

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