Commas with Appositives

What is an appositive?

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that identifies, or provides further information about, another noun phrase. The two noun phrases are in apposition, meaning that they are in some way equivalent.


      (1)  The house we had just bought, a sprawling and dilapidated
           Victorian monstrosity, was going to eat up all our savings.

      (2)  The cafe's best-selling coffee, a triple shot of espresso
       topped with steamed milk, costs only two dollars.

      (3)  Dr. Einstein, my physics professor, is a great
Restrictive vs Non-Restrictive Appositives

Appositives can be restrictive or non-restrictive. When the appositive is not essential to the meaning of the sentence but provides more information about the main subject--as in the above example--it is non-restrictive.

Restrictive appositives identify the noun more closely. They specify a particular noun.

	My sister Samantha lives in England while
	my sister Tabitha works in Hong Kong.
Now see how incoherent this sentence becomes when the appositives are omitted:

	My sister lives in England while my sister works in Hong Kong.
The appositives "Samantha" and "Tabitha" are essential to the meaning of the sentence; they tell us which sister is being referred to.

Rule #1: Restrictive appositives do not use commas.

	My sister Jane studies in England.
The restrictive appositive "Jane" implies that I have one specific sister who studies in England, while my other sisters (Marta and Suzanne) study elsewhere. Therefore, "Jane" is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Rule#2: Non-restrictive appositives must be enclosed in commas. You can use dashes (sparingly!) instead of commas if you want to emphasize the appositive.

	My sister, Jane, studies in England.
The non-restrictive appositive implies that I only have one sister, whose name happens to be Jane, and she studies in England. Here "my sister" and "Jane" are equivalent phrases; they are in apposition to each other. The word "Jane" provides additional information about the phrase "my sister", and vice versa. If "Jane" is removed, the meaning of the sentence will not change.
Comma Practice

Type in the letter of the sentences which show the correct use of commas with appositives. Separate letters with a comma, but no space (e.g. 1,2,4). If your response shows as "Incorrect" in the status bar, the correct answer will appear in the blank.

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Copyright © 1998
English Department
University of Calgary

Last updated: July 26 1999