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An appositive is a noun that immediately follows another noun in order to clarify it. An appositive usually follows the noun it explains or identifies, but it may also precede it. Restrictive appositives (essential to the sentence) are not set off with commas while nonrestrictive appositives are set off with commas.

1st Question:
How do you determine which is the appositive? Is this something that the writer decides, or is this dictated by the sentence structure?

For example, consider the following sentence in which the appositive comes before.

A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

Then, consider the next sentence in which the appositive comes after.

Our pediatrician, André Wilson, was born in California.

Both sentences are very similar. Why does the appositive comes first in one but last in the other?

2nd Question:
If an appositive can come before the noun, how would commas be treated if we add a few words to the beginning of the sentence? Let's look at the first sentence in the previous example.

I went to the museum because a bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

If Wassily Kandinsky is the subject and "a bold innovator" is the appositive, shouldn't it be surrounded with commas? Wouldn't the correct sentence be:

I went to the museum because, a bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

But, this looks strange. What do we do?

Original Issue

By the way, I am asking this question because I had trouble figuring out the following sentence. It stumped me.

I use the upper left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

If the appositive is "the upper left key", then it's non-restrictive and commas are necessary. So, wouldn't you have to write it like this?

I use, the upper left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

But, if the appositive is "the ` key", then it's restrictive and commas are unnecessary. So, it should be written like this:

I use the upper left key the ` key to open and close Chrome.

But, it would seem that the best way to write this sentence like this, but it doesn't seem to conform to the rules of grammar.

I use the upper left key, the ` key to open and close Chrome.

In this case, the appositive is "the ` key" and it's restrictive. Yet, I put a comma after "left key".

Very confusing...

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  • The first example makes a comment about a well-known artist. The second gives the name of the paediatrician, who presumably isn't so well-known. A general comment about an artist isn't a reason for going to a museum. Aug 3, 2023 at 16:51
  • The first question was almost rhetorical. I do know how the sentences differ. It's sort of giving background info for my real question, the second one. What happens when the appositive comes before the noun but it's in the middle of the sentence? Should you use two commas to set the appositive apart? Aug 3, 2023 at 17:50
  • As I hinted, your sentence in Question 2 doesn't make sense. You would have to say something like "I went to the museum to see the paintings of that bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky". Aug 3, 2023 at 18:02
  • @KateBunting So, how would you fix the last sentence? Would you use 2 commas or one? Aug 3, 2023 at 18:05
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    I understand "the upper left key" to define its place on the keyboard; the extreme left of the top row (not counting the function keys). The appositive phrase identifies it by the symbol, and could potentially be left out. Aug 3, 2023 at 18:45

1 Answer 1

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You have asked two questions, which isn't strictly allowed here. However, I'm going to reframe your question because I don't think all of your examples are actually examples of apposition and I think that if you understand it better you may answer your own questions.

Apposition is, as you explained, two consecutive nouns or noun phrases that identify the same subject but in different ways. They can help clarify the identity of the subject to someone who may not recognise them.

Your example of "our paediatrician, André Wilson" is a good one. You could be speaking to one person who knows your paediatrician and does not need his name to identify him. Or you could have named him first and then had to qualify his identity by adding his relationship to you, as your paediatrician. In other words, you could write this either way:

  • André Wilson, our paediatrician, is a nice man.
  • Our paediatrician, André Wilson, is a nice man.

Your example sentence that begins "A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky" is not an example of apposition. The statement "a bold innovator" certainly tells us a little about the person, but it is entirely parenthetical and does not identify him. In the previous example, you don't have to use either apposition for the sentence to make some sense and the subject to be identifiable to at least some people. But this would not make sense without the noun:

A bold innovator is known for his colorful abstract paintings.

Nobody has even identified by this statement.

To someone who has never heard of Wassily Kandinsky, the information that follows - that he is known for abstract paintings - tells us more about him yet still does not identify him. Lots of people are abstract painters and lots of people could be described as bold innovators.

If it were written as...

Wassily Kandinsky, the abstract artist known for The Blue Rider, was a bold innovator.

... then this would be apposition, as both statements identify the artist to a reasonable degree.

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  • "A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky" was taken from a grammar website, giving it as an example of an appositive that comes before the noun. If you wrote it your way, I agree that works but that negates the point that I'm trying to make - what happens when the appositive precedes the noun? (By the way, a few people have said that it's not possible for an appositive to proceed the noun and is grammatically impermissible.) Aug 4, 2023 at 4:10
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    @UnbakedDecimeter No offence, but you're not meant to be making a point; you're asking a question. I've added a bit of detail to try and show you why the second example is not apposition - true appositives should be interchangeable in most situations because they both identify the subject. Your example does not identify anybody. As for the website - well, they don't give websites to just anybody, do they.
    – Astralbee
    Aug 4, 2023 at 7:35
  • "A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky is known for his colorful abstract paintings" is from the appositives page of Purdue University's OWL which I previously considered fairly trustworthy. It's not just some random internet person with no education or qualifications. But that does not mean it is always right.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 4, 2023 at 15:56
  • It's not only that website. This reasoning is used on MANY established websites. But, that alone doesn't justify it because everyone can be doing it incorrectly. (That's how people used to believe that sentences shouldn't end with a preposition.) Aug 4, 2023 at 16:05
  • @Astralbee I'm not trying to make a point; I'm trying to find an answer! Maybe, there are alternative views? I actually posted this question on the other forum and there hasn't been a definitive answer. english.stackexchange.com/questions/610828/… Aug 4, 2023 at 16:15

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