Appositives: What Is an Appositive Phrase?

by | Nov 11, 2021 | GrammarSpot | 4 comments

When I taught English grammar to college freshmen, one of my favorite lessons was on the appositive and the appositive phrase. It seemed like my students could grasp these concepts more quickly than other grammar lessons. Appositives really are one of the easiest grammatical constructs to work with in writing. They are simply nouns and noun phrases in apposition to other nouns or noun phrases. Whoa, apposition??? What the heck is that? “Apposition” is just a fancy word for “beside.”


What Is an Appositive?

In the grammar world, an appositive is a single word that denotes two or more grammatically parallel units that refer to the same thing where one unit further identifies the other, such as “my dog Lucy.” In this case, the word “Lucy” is an appositive because it further identifies the noun “dog.” Think of appositives as extra layers of description that can appear at the beginning, middle and end of sentences. When most people think of appositives, they think of examples like these:

Appositive Examples:

  • Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Book, assigned Moby Dick. (Noun = Teacher; Appositive = Mrs. Book)
  • Appleton, Mark’s dad, owns an orchard. (Noun = Mr. Appleton; Appositive = Mark’s dad)
  • My childhood friend, Melody, loved music. (Noun = Friend; Appositive = Melody)

In each of these appositive examples, the appositive appears in the middle of the sentence right beside the noun it renames. Appositive phrases are similar.


Definition of an appositive phrase

What Is an Appositive Phrase?

An appositive phrase is a group of words consisting of an appositive and its modifiers. Like a single word appositive, appositive phrases appear beside the noun or pronoun they are renaming. These phrases are either essential or non-essential—more about that later. Appositive phrases add a deeper description, just as single appositives do. Take a look at these appositive examples:

Appositive Phrase Examples:

  • Alaska, the largest state in the U.S., is north of the contiguous 48 states.
  • Roslyn Carter, wife of former president Jimmy Carter, is the oldest living First Lady.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., the popular civil rights activist, was murdered.

See how they work the same as single-word appositives? Notice how the appositive phrases in each sentence are framed by commas? It means these are non-essential appositives. Let’s learn more about essential and non-essential appositive phrases.


Non-Essential Appositive Phrases

When a sentence still makes sense without the appositive, the appositive is considered non-essential. A non-essential appositive or appositive phrase can appear at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a sentence. Non-essential appositives and appositive phrases that appear in the middle of a sentence are framed by commas to show the information is “extra” but not required for the grammatical correctness of the sentence. If non-essential phrases appear at the beginning of a sentence, they are followed by a comma. If they appear at the end of the sentence, they are preceded by a comma. For example:

  • A DC comic superhero, the Flash is popular among young boys.
  • The Flash, Barry Allen’s alter ego, is a DC comic superhero.
  • My nephew often compares himself to the Flash, a DC comic superhero.

We know these appositive phrases are non-essential because when we remove them from the sentence, the sentence still makes sense:

  • The Flash is popular among young boys.
  • The Flash is a DC comic superhero.
  • My nephew often compares himself to the Flash.

In these appositive examples, the boldface information is helpful but not necessary to the clarity, meaning and grammatical correctness of the sentences. When an appositive phrase is essential, that changes.


what is an appositive

Essential Appositive Phrases

An essential appositive phrase is necessary to the sentence’s meaning. For instance, this sentence is too vague: “The popular civil rights activist was murdered.” It could refer to any number of activists. However, “The popular civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered,” is much clearer with the addition of the appositive.

  • Former First Lady Roslyn Carter is the oldest living First Lady.
  • The talented artist Leonardo DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa.
  • My friend Emily owes me $50.

If the appositive phrase is removed from each of these sentences, the sentences no longer have enough information:

  • Former First Lady is the oldest living First Lady. (Which former first lady?)
  • The talented artist painted the Mona Lisa. (Which artist?)
  • My friend owes me $50. (Which friend?)

One more thing: Regardless of where it appears in a sentence, if the appositive/appositive phrase is essential to sentence meaning and clarity, the sentence does not need a comma or commas.


More Examples of Essential and Non-Essential Appositives and Appositive Phrases

Essential Appositive Phrase Examples Non-Essential Appositive Phrase Examples
Author Edgar Allen Poe wrote tales of horror. Edgar Allen Poe, the famous horror writer, died from unknown causes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes is still popular on screen and in print. Sherlock Holmes, a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is still popular on screen and in print.
Pop star Michael Jackson died in 2009. Michael Jackson, the pop star, died in 2009.


Common Phrases/Words That Start Appositive Phrases

Appositives in writing are easy to spot by looking for specific words and phrases that often start an appositive phrase. Check out the appositive examples in the following table.

Common Words that Start Appositive Phrases Example Sentences
Such as Common ice cream flavors, such as vanilla and chocolate, are his favorites.
Including Social media is used by other community agencies, including church groups and health centers, to promote projects and events.
That is UV radiation, that is ultraviolet rays, is used in labs and manufacturing.
In other words The university stated that furloughs, in other words “layoffs,” may occur in the future.
Namely Furloughed employees, namely those deemed non-essential, may apply for unemployment benefits.
For example/for instance The summer months, for example, July and August, are the hottest.
A A DC comic superhero, the Flash is popular among young boys.
An An excellent shot, Annie Oakley traveled with a wild west show.
The The largest state in the U.S., Alaska is north of the contiguous 48 states.


Conclusion: Appositive Phrases Can Be Easy!

The next time you want to improve the flow, clarity or descriptive quality of your writing, try using an appositive or an appositive phrase. If you have any other great appositive examples, leave them in the comments below!

Lisa Garnier