The Grammarphobia Blog

Appositively speaking

Q: I seem to be the only person who feels that this construction requires a comma after “Delmonico” to offset the appositional phrase: “The oldest resident of the nursing home, Delmonico is given to reciting bawdy limericks.” Thanks for any light you can shed.

A: Grammatically, as you know, “apposite” means equivalent (not to be confused with “opposite”), and an appositive is the explanatory equivalent of a noun or noun phrase previously mentioned.

In the sentence you cite, the appositive “Delmonico” helps identify the noun phrase “the oldest resident of the nursing home.”

An appositive, as we wrote in a 2013 post, is sometimes surrounded by commas and sometimes not.

The appositive is set off between two commas only if it’s not essential—that is, if it could be deleted without losing the point of the sentence. If it’s essential and couldn’t be dropped, it isn’t followed by a comma.

In your example, the point of the sentence is that Delmonico, the real subject, likes to spout racy limericks. The introductory phrase merely adds information about Delmonico.

The point of the sentence would be lost if we dropped “Delmonico,” so the appositive here isn’t followed by a comma.

If we rewrite the sentence and make “Delmonico” the introductory element, then the nonessential stuff that follows becomes the appositive and is surrounded by commas:

“Delmonico, a long-term resident of the nursing home, is given to reciting bawdy limericks.”

In short, put commas around an appositive that’s dispensable—one that could be dropped without losing the point of the sentence.  But don’t put commas around one that’s essential to the point.

By the way, an appositive is usually found right after its equivalent, but that isn’t always the case.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives this example of an appositive that’s separated from its “anchor,” or original noun phrase: “I met a friend of yours at the party last night—Emma Carlisle.”

Here are some additional examples that may help illustrate the use of appositives and commas:

● “My youngest son, a whiz in shop class, is handy with a hammer and nails.” The appositive (“a whiz in shop class”) can be deleted without losing the point of the sentence. Arrange it differently, and you can drop the second comma: “A whiz in shop class, my youngest son is handy with a hammer and nails.”

“A trim athlete, my sister tries to watch what she eats.” The introductory phrase adds information, but it’s not essential. The appositive “my sister” is essential—it’s the whole point of the sentence. So it’s restrictive and should not be followed by a comma.

You sometimes see this construction in cases where a name has already been mentioned and it’s replaced by a pronoun as an appositive.

Consider this passage: “Delmonico is a born comic. A long-term resident of the nursing home, he’s given to reciting bawdy limericks.”

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