Appositives, Restrictives, and Commas: A Fairy Tale of Sorts

Ann Baker is the manager of EDP.

In the world of scholarly publishing, just like all communication, precision is important. Countless books have been written on the subject, in an apparently futile effort to help humanity’s struggle with the need for precision (think Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves). However, while much of the minutiae regarding grammar and syntax is wisely left to “the experts,” some rules are less complicated than they might first appear. Consider the appositive.

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that identifies a neighboring noun, pronoun, or nounlike element in order to define or restate or further distinguish it. An appositive is not essential to the identification of the term it modifies; instead of narrowing that term, an appositive simply adds some further information about it and can usually be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers. This modifying noun, phrase, or clause is in apposition to the first noun and provides an explanatory equivalent. It is normally set off by commas.

To demonstrate, let’s turn to a little tale, told in bullet points. (Our favorite!)

  • Natasha is married (to Boris) and a mother (of four children: Rocky, June, Jane, and Joan).
  • Natasha’s husband, Boris, is a spy by day and a playwright by night. (Natasha has only one husband; it’s possible to eliminate the “appositive” name Boris without losing the meaning. Thus, commas are needed.)
  • Natasha’s son, Rocky, delivers the local newspaper when he isn’t burying the papers instead. (Natasha has only one son, the rascal. Adding his name gives further but not vital information. Commas needed.)
  • Natasha’s youngest daughter, Joan, loves to feed miniature marshmallows to the family’s pet moose, Bullwinkle. (There can be only one youngest daughter. The family owns only one pet moose. These two are quite a pair. Added names: commas needed.)

On the other hand, a restrictive noun or noun phrase provides essential information for the identification of the term it modifies. It restricts or narrows down the scope of that term, identifying precisely which play, child, or pet the writer has in mind. The absence of commas marks the difference of function: a restrictive element can do its job of narrowing only if it is not isolated by commas. Compare the earlier examples to the ones below:

  • Boris’s play Death of a Salesperson is being revived at the local puppet theater. (Added commas around the title of the play would imply that Boris has written only one play. But Boris is a prolific writer and doesn’t get much sleep. He has countless plays to his name. The reader needs to know which play. No commas.)
  • Natasha’s daughter Jane is a performance artist and composer of light opera. (Natasha has more than one daughter. Jane, daughter number two, should not be confused with her sister June, who dreams of owning her own nail salon. For clarity about which daughter: no commas.)
  • Bullwinkle the moose doesn’t particularly care for marshmallows. (In addition to the moose, the family owns a pet squirrel, which also happens to be named Bullwinkle. Hey, so sue them, they like the name. Which Bullwinkle? The moose. No commas.)

The moral of this little tale? Ask yourself a simple question on whether to add commas: Is the noun being restated (or nonrestricted: add commas) or narrowed down (and restricted: do not add commas)?

But what about Natasha?