Essential Appositive phrases

Essential versus Nonessential Appositive Phrases

An appositive phraseOpens in new window includes all the words or phrases that modify an appositive. All the appositive phrases we have examined in the previous studyOpens in new window have been nonessential.

Nonessential appositive phrases are not required to define the noun phrase they follow. That is, we can delete the appositive phrases and still be left with a meaningful noun phrase. For example, in the following senence

  • Noel Coward wrote Private Lives, his best-known play, in 1930.

the appositive phrase his best-known play can be deleted without affecting the basic identity of the noun it follows:

  • Noel Coward wrote Private Lives in 1930.

Private Lives would still have been written by Noel Coward in 1930 even if we were not told that it is his best-known play. Even if the play were to be largely forgotten, it still would have been written by Noel Coward in 1930.

Compare this example of a sentence containing a nonessential appositive with the following sentence, which contains an essential appositive:

  • My friend Tim works in the city.

Presumably, the writer of this sentence has more than one friend, so when we delete the appositive phrase Tim, we lose information critical to establishing the meaning of the noun phrase my friend:

  • My friend works in the city.

We have no idea which of the writer’s friends works in the city.

The distinction between essential and nonessential appositive phrases is not so much a grammatical distinction as a judgment about what we can reasonably expect the reader to know. For example, compare the following sentences:

    Nonessential
  • Homer, the Greek poet, was blind.
    Essential
  • The Greek poet Homer was blind.

In the first sentence, the appositive phrase the Greek poet is nonessential because we can reasonably assume that everyone who can read without moving their lips knows who Homer was.

The reader does not need the information in the appositive phrase to identify Homer. In the second sentence, on the other hand, the appositive phrase Homer is essential because the reader would not have any way of knowing which Greek poet the sentence was about:

  • ? The Greek poet was blind.

A simple and reliable way to test whether an appositive phrase is essential or nonessential is to delete the appositive and see the effect on the noun phrase preceding the appositive phrase. If that noun phrase is still meaningful, then the appositive phrase is nonessential. If the meaning of that noun phrase is now inappropriately ambiguous, then the appositive phrase is essential.

Essential and nonessential appositive phrases are always distinguishable by their punctuation. Essential appositives phrases are never set off with commas. Nonessential phrases are always set off with commas.