How to Accentuate the Appositive

Commas can be  a writer’s best friend, but lately I’ve seen too many sentences  like this one:

Left-handed pitcher, Todd Jones, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist, John Smith, attended the reception.

Why commas in those sentences? In my opinion, inserting those two mental pauses disrupts the flow of the sentence. When that happens, the reader may stop.

commaThe commas are not necessary. Both sentences seem to treat the proper names “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” as appositives, not as the subjects of the sentences. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows and renames another noun or noun phrase. “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” qualify, I suppose, but as the Associated Press Stylebook notes, “A decision on whether to put commas around a word, phrase or clause used in apposition depends on whether it is essential to the meaning of the sentence (no commas) or not essential (use commas).”

In the sentences above, surely the names of the pitcher and senator are essential. So dump those commas. To keep these sentences grammatical and improve their flow, they could be rewritten in one of two ways:

Todd Jones, a left-handed pitcher, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

John Smith, a Wyoming naturalist, attended the reception.

This is a more traditional use of the appositive, adding more specific description to the proper noun that precedes it. While the nonessential phrase “left-handed pitcher” and “Wyoming senator” could be dropped without destroying the sentences, the reader’s pause for the comma is shorter, less pronounced. The reader is willing to put up with the pause because the words and pause seem natural, like everyday speech.

However, my editing preference would be the leaner versions below, which eliminates the need for commas:

Left-handed pitcher Todd Jones won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist John Smith attended the reception.

Putting the adjective phrase before the noun is terser, quicker to the point. Writing is all about establishing rhythm and flow, making the words easy to follow. When your ideas are strong, editing can make them stronger. See what a good editor can do for your writing.


Filed under Editing Tips, Grammar, Writing Tips

2 responses to “How to Accentuate the Appositive

  1. Andy Wiffler

    What about when you want to accentuate the comma. I don’t know whether to use a full stop or a semicolon. This is a sentence I am struggling with. It may be a little grammatically ham-fisted but It’s exactly how I wish it to be.

    I, if it was me, I would ride it like the wind.

    There are significant pauses between “I” and “if” then the same significant pause between “me” and “I”, as if they’re being read aloud. Mild pregnant pauses.

    There is a music term, A fermata [ferˈmaːta] (also known as a hold, pause, colloquially a birdseye or cyclops eye, or as a grand pause when placed on a note or a rest) is a symbol of musical notation indicating that the note should be prolonged beyond the normal duration its note value would indicate.

    Prolonged beyond the normal duration, I would add ‘withing reason by the performer(s)’

    I also want to write “if it were me” but I’ve been told that is incorrect.
    Can you give me some instruction

    • If you want to accentuate the pauses in your sentence, I would use a dash instead of the commas, indicating a stricter, if not longer, pause between the words joined by the dash. However, I would make the sentence shorter, more direct and grammatically correct, by rewriting it to: If it were me, I would ride it like the wind. “If” takes the subjunctive “were,” definitely correct (although proper use of the subjunctive is a dying art). Hope that helps, and thanks for writing!

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