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Comma Down—Commas with Appositives

An appositive is a word or group of words that renames, elaborates on or otherwise provides more information about another word that appears close to it in a sentence—usually adjacent.

Here’s a story with some examples:

The Teaching Life

My English teacher, a Harvard grad, thought he was the smartest guy in the school. One day, our class wise-guy, a smart kid who flunked the first term, set out to prove otherwise. He got his girlfriend, an accomplished artist, to make him some posters with obvious spelling and grammar mistakes on them. These mistakes, pet peeves of our teacher, would rile him up for sure. He often spoke of how he carried a permanent marker, a red one, with him wherever he went to fix mistakes he found on public signs. One time he even got a fine for defacing public property when he added a missing apostrophe, his biggest vexation, on a sign in a town park that said, “Its the Law.”  He refused to pay, saying the mistake was the crime and he was righting a wrong. The judge, a stickler for fair application of the law, threw him in jail for a week!

“Graffiti,” said the judge, “is graffiti.”

The new posters, colorful abstractions of birds and trees, were gorgeous. And their incorrect captions and word art, bugbears for sure, were obvious even to us. We put them up on the walls just outside our teacher’s classroom door. Other teachers in the wing, tired of his pompous attitude, were in on the prank and came out to watch.

When the bell rang and class ended, our teacher came out in and took his place outside his door. Sure enough, all it took was a glance. He whipped out his permanent marker, a red one, and began to “correct” the posters in indelible ink.

Wise Guy’s girlfriend, something of an actress, appeared. She knew what she needed to do. She cried and yelled and begged our teacher to stop. She said he was ruining her art and that she would call her father, a celebrated local lawyer, to make him pay for what he ruined.

A language fanatic to the end, our teacher was like a man possessed. Circles, arrows, corrections, revision suggestions—he was in full paper-grading mode and forgot that he wasn’t at his desk. His markings and comments flowed off the posters and onto the walls and when his first marker ran out of ink he reached into his pocket and instantly produced another.

No one stopped him.

The next class had begun, but everyone was still watching silently in the hall, teachers included. By now, our teacher was sweaty and disheveled—shirt untucked and hair a mess. His jacket, Brooks Brothers, always carefully hung during class on the valet stand near his desk, was on the floor in a heap.  We had never seen him this way and wondered if the prank had gone too far when the principal, a Yale grad, exploded down the stairs and into our hallway.

“BACK TO CLASS, ALL OF YOU!” she bellowed.

We hurried away so as not to be recognized, trampling the jacket as we moved, a block of bodies unsure of what just happened.

No one saw what came next, but the building substitute, a retired NFL linebacker, took over in our teacher’s classroom and stayed until a suitable replacement could be found.

The walls in the hall were painted over and the battered Brooks Brothers jacket was hung on the valet stand and preserved in the principal’s office as a symbol of teaching gone awry.

The new teacher, a state college grad, was approachable, pretty, humble and smart. Her classes were well-planned and engaging and everyone, even the other teachers, liked her.

We didn’t find out until much later that she always carried a red permanent marker in her purse.

The End

So, here’s what this story reveals about the appositive.

  • It is usually a noun (and maybe some modifiers) that renames another noun.
  • It usually appears in the sentence adjacent to the noun it renames
  • It is set off from the rest of the sentence with a pair of commas. 

Here’s what the story does not reveal about the appositive.

  • Single-word appositives are often not separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. Here are some examples:
    • My brother Wolfgang writes poems whenever there’s a full moon.
    • Stay away from that new kid Hank. He’s mean.
    • Today I read the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and thought about how it applies to my own life.
    • The movie Oppenheimer won the Academy Award in 2024.
    • That’s my cat George.

Now You Try

  • Write a story that includes correctly punctuated appositives for all or any (at least ten) of the following fifty nouns.
  • Or, if you prefer, write an individual, free-standing sentence that includes an appositive for each noun. (Well, at least ten.)
  • Or, if you’re feeling creative, make up your own list of nouns and work from that.
  • Or, just start writing and isolate some key nouns in the piece (at least ten) and embellish them with correctly punctuated appositives.

Whichever you choose, make sure that your appositives meet the criteria listed above. Have fun!

Airplane     fight attendant     hotel     restaurant       driver     route     car rental 

Tour     tour guide     itinerary     sommelier     server     breakfast buffet     taxi

Bus     airport     train station     pilot     conductor     subway     station     tickets

Docent     museum     night club     attractions     walking shoes     luggage     porter

Guidebook     map     scenery     culture     food     entertainment     lobby     suite

Ship     destination     surprises     education     nausea     medication    recuperation

Directions     confusion     arrivals     departures     schedules     home