Episode 141: October 17, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today’s topic is appositives.
Guest-writer Bonnie Trenga writes,
Today we have to decide if information is essential or extra, because if it’s extra we’ll need some extra commas. The concept I’m referring to is called an appositive. A listener, Mary, raised this topic when she asked, “Is it OK to start a sentence with ‘A vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job’? Is this OK or should it be ‘Vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job’?” Well, Mary, yes in one case but no in another.
What Is an Appositive?
Before we get into the details of this fairly complicated topic, we need to find out what an appositive is. It’s a noun or a noun phrase that is placed next to another noun or noun phrase to help identify it (1). So at the beginning of this episode, I said, “a listener, Mary, raised this topic.” In this sentence, the subject is “a listener.” The name Mary is an appositive.
Essential or Extra?
Appositives can be essential information or extra information. Only appositives that are extra information get commas. The question now is whether the name Mary is essential or extra. The rule for appositives is that if the information is essential, you don’t use commas. If it is extra, you use extra commas (2). Remember: extra information, extra commas.
I’m sorry to tell you, Mary, but your name was not essential; that is why it was surrounded with commas. Of course your name is essential to you, but it’s not essential to that sentence. The sentence was about the fact that a listener—one of many—had a question about appositives. You could leave out the appositive and the sentence would still convey the same thought: “A listener raised this topic.”
Now, if this podcast had only one listener, the story would be different. If Mary were the only listener, and we're glad she's not, then the sentence would have to go like this: “Listener Mary asked about appositives.” It would be incorrect to put commas around her name because her name is essential identifying information. You couldn’t delete the appositive in this case because the sentence would not make sense. You couldn’t say, “Listener asked about appositives.”
Two Examples Explained
So let’s look at Mary’s example of the vocational counselor. It’s going to seem a bit confusing at first, but if you remember the phrase “extra information, extra commas,” then you should be able to get it. In fact, I’ll put up a variety of extra examples at the bottom of this transcript to make it easier.
Anyway, Mary suggested two different ways to express her thought about the vocational counselor. First was “A vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job.” Second was “Vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job.”
The first one, which starts with “A vocational counselor,” is a little tricky because there are two ways to interpret it. The first way is that “Jane Smith” is the subject and you’re giving extra information by telling us what her job is. “A vocational counselor” is therefore an appositive and it’s extra information. If they were in the middle of a sentence, the words “A vocational counselor” would be surrounded by commas, but since the phrase is at the beginning, you put only one comma, after the word “counselor.” The sentence therefore reads “A vocational counselor, Jane Smith has agreed to help me get a job.” You could delete the information about her job and it would still make sense: “Jane Smith has agreed to help me get a job.”
The second way to interpret this first example is that the subject is “A vocational counselor” and the appositive is her name. Then her name is extra information that needs to be surrounded by commas, so the sentence reads “A vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job.” You could delete her name and the sentence would still make sense: “A vocational counselor has agreed to help me get a job.”
So you can see that either way is correct, depending on your interpretation of which is more important: that Jane Smith agreed to help you or that a vocational counselor agreed to help you.
The second vocational counselor example is easier. Thank goodness! Her example was actually incorrect. You can’t say, “Vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job” because in this case the appositive, her name, is essential information. No commas needed. “Vocational counselor Jane Smith” is one job title, as is Inspector Jacques Clouseau of “Pink Panther” fame.
Appositives can be tricky, and commas are always tricky, so when faced with an appositive, you need to ask yourself: “essential or extra?” If the appositive is extra information and can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you use commas. If it’s essential, then you don’t use commas. Remember that extra information needs extra commas. Be sure to check out some other examples below.