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Appositive Phrase

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Appositive Phrase

The appositive phrase, a particular kind of noun phrase, is a useful grammatical tool.

Sitting between the two commas in that sentence is an example of an appositive phrase! This type of phrase may seem like an abstract concept of grammar, but it plays a large role in everyday communication. When you learn to use them effectively, appositive phrases can be "a positive" addition to your writing.

Appositive Phrase Definition

So, what is an appositive phrase, exactly? Here's the full definition to start:

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that modifies the noun phrase immediately next to it.

In other words, an appositive phrase adds extra information to the noun phrase right before or after it. This information can define, specify, and describe the noun phrase.

What's a noun phrase, again?

The definition states that an appositive phrase is a noun phrase modifying another noun phrase. To understand this definition, you have to know for sure what a noun phrase is! Here's a refresher on the noun phrase.

Appositive Phrase, Syntax Tree Noun Phrase, StudySmarterPhrase structure of the noun phrase "my friend," StudySmarter originals

A noun phrase is a phrase made up of modifiers and a noun.

A noun phrase can contain different elements, but it always centers on the noun. In other words, the noun is in the spotlight of the noun phrase.

To take the definition one step further, an appositive phrase and the noun phrase it modifies are parts of a larger noun phrase! You can see this in the phrase structure tree below.

Appositive Phrase, Phrase structure, StudySmarterPhrase structure of the appositive phrase "my friend the athlete," StudySmarter originals

As you can see, the noun phrase and appositive phrase are two separate phrases, but they're both part of a larger noun phrase. The appositive phrase acts as the modifier for the other noun phrase!

Reminder: technically, a noun phrase can consist of just one noun. You'll see this most often when the subject of a sentence is a proper noun.

Appositive Phrases Uses

Appositive phrases are useful for speaking and writing descriptively. An appositive phrase adds descriptive information to another noun phrase. There are three major uses for appositive phrases:

  • Appositive phrases can add bonus information to a noun phrase, without distracting from the rest of the sentence.
  • Appositive phrases can help to define a noun phrase.
  • Appositive phrases can combine simple sentences and help writing flow naturally.

One appositive phrase can perform more than one of these functions at a time! You'll see specific examples of each of these uses later. For now, keep these functions of appositives in mind. You'll start noticing appositives everywhere!

Types of Appositive Phrases

Appositive phrases fall into two categories: essential and nonessential. Here's a breakdown of both categories.

Essential appositive phrase

An essential appositive phrase is exactly what it sounds like. Here's the definition:

An essential (also called restrictive) appositive phrase adds essential information to a noun phrase.

This means that an essential appositive phrase helps to define the noun phrase it modifies. Without it, the noun phrase would be non-specific. It's also called a restrictive appositive phrase, because it restricts what the noun phrase could reference. This example demonstrates an essential appositive in more detail:

The German director Fritz Lang is known for his 1927 movie Metropolis.

The appositive is the proper noun Fritz Lang, immediately following the noun phrase the German director. Without the appositive, the sentence would look like this:

The German director is known for his 1927 movie Metropolis.

The sentence still makes sense grammatically, but without context it's not clear which German director is being referenced. The appositive Fritz Lang is essential for the reader to understand the noun phrase The German director.

This is the essence of an essential appositive phrase: it has to be there in order to specify the noun phrase it modifies.

Nonessential appositive phrase

After that explanation of essential appositive phrases, you can probably guess what a nonessential appositive phrase does.

A nonessential (also called non-restrictive) appositive phrase adds nonessential information to a noun phrase.

Nonessential information is information that doesn't rename or restrict the noun phrase it modifies. It just adds a little bonus description. The nonessential appositive phrase can even be removed from the sentence, and the meaning of the sentence won't change.

Unlike essential appositives, nonessential appositive phrases are offset by punctuation. The punctuation marks that signal these appositives include:

  • commas (,)
  • parentheses ( )
  • em-dashes (—)

These punctuation marks make it easy to tell nonessential appositives from essential appositives.

Fun fact: how do punctuation marks change the meaning of an appositive phrase? Well...they don't. When speaking English out loud, people usually change the pitch, timing, and volume of their voices to signal nonessential or essential appositives. The commas, parentheses, and em-dashes that offset a nonessential appositive phrase just try to imitate these voice changes.

Here's an example of a nonessential appositive:

Fritz Lang, a German director, is known for his 1927 movie Metropolis.

This time the appositive a German director modifies the noun phrase Fritz Lang. Without the appositive, the sentence would look like this:

Fritz Lang is known for his 1927 movie Metropolis.

Even without the appositive, the noun phrase Fritz Lang hasn't changed. The sentence still clearly references the same person. This means that the appositive phrase a German director is nonessential.

When you look at an appositive, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can the appositive be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence?
  • Is the appositive offset by punctuation marks?

If the answer is yes to both of these questions, the appositive is nonessential. Otherwise, the appositive is essential.

Appositive Phrases Examples

Now for a closer look into specific examples of appositive phrases. Remember the three major uses of appositive phrases discussed earlier? These examples explore the major uses in more detail. Don't forget that each of these appositives performs more than one of the major functions, even though the examples focus on one function at a time.

Adding bonus information

This example focuses on the first use: adding bonus information to a noun phrase, without distracting from the rest of the sentence.

My sister (the best baker in town) baked my wedding cake.

Is this an essential or nonessential appositive phrase? To find out, try removing it from the sentence.

My sister baked my wedding cake.

The noun phrase my sister is still complete and specific without the appositive (the best baker in town). This hints that the phrase is nonessential.

The appositive is also surrounded by parentheses. This proves the theory that the phrase is nonessential.

What purpose does this nonessential appositive serve? It adds a helpful extra description to the noun phrase my sister without distracting from the rest of the sentence. This purpose applies specifically to nonessential appositive phrases.

This first function—adding bonus information without distracting from the rest of the sentence—is always performed by a nonessential appositive phrase, rather than an essential appositive phrase.

Defining a noun phrase

Another function of appositive phrases to help to define a noun phrase. Here's an example:

Your coworker Noah just called me.

The appositive phrase Noah modifies the noun phrase your coworker. Remove the appositive to find out if it's essential or nonessential.

Your coworker just called me.

The grammar of the sentence still makes sense, but now the noun phrase your coworker is non-specific. The appositive Noah restricts your coworker to one specific person. This is essential information, so the phrase is an essential appositive phrase. Noah is also not surrounded with punctuation marks, which gives more evidence that the phrase is essential.

In this example, the appositive phrase Noah helps to define the noun phrase it modifies. This function applies specifically to essential appositive phrases.

This function of defining a noun phrase is performed by an essential appositive phrase, rather than a nonessential appositive phrase.

Combining simple sentences

What about the third function of appositive phrases? Appositive phrases can combine smaller sentences that would otherwise stand alone. This can help the sentences to flow more naturally. Take a look at the rewritten examples below, and you'll see the difference:

Separate SentencesCombined Sentence with Appositive Phrase
My sister is the best baker in town. My sister baked my wedding cake.My sister (the best baker in town) baked my wedding cake.
Your coworker is Noah. Your coworker just called me.Your coworker Noah just called me.

Appositive Phrase Identification

Now you know the ins and outs of appositive phrases, but how can you identify an appositive phrase in the wild? When you're reading a text, and you see a phrase that might be an appositive phrase, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this phrase a noun phrase immediately before or after another noun phrase?
  • Does the phrase modify the noun phrase next to it?
  • Does the phrase add information that either specifies the noun phrase or provides it with an extra description?

If the answer is yes to every question, you're probably looking at an appositive phrase! Try this out in this example:

A natural talent, Leonard Bernstein could sightread complex piano pieces from a young age.

Is the phrase a natural talent an appositive? Start asking yourself the questions.

  • Is it a noun phrase immediately before or after another noun phrase? A natural talent consists of the noun talent and the words a and natural that modify it. Immediately after it is the proper noun Leonard Bernstein, which forms its own noun phrase. The answer to the first question is yes.
  • Does it modify the noun phrase next to it?In the sentence, a natural talent describes Leonard Bernstein the composer. That means that, yes, this phrase modifies the noun phrase Leonard Bernstein.
  • Does it add information that either specifies the noun phrase or provides it with an extra description?The phrase describes Leonard Bernstein as a natural talent. This is a bonus description that doesn't change or restrict the noun phrase Leonard Bernstein. This means that the answer to the third question is yes.

After getting an answer of yes to every question, you can safely assume that a natural talent is an appositive phrase.

And there you have it: the features, rules, and functions of the appositive phrase! Keep an eye out for appositive phrases the next time you read an essay or story, and pay attention to the purposes they serve in the text.

Appositive Phrase - Key takeaways

  • An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that modifies the noun phrase immediately next to it.
  • Appositive phrases can add bonus information to a noun phrase, help to define a noun phrase, and combine otherwise-separate sentences into a natural sentence.
  • Appositive phrases fall into two categories: essential and nonessential.
  • Essential (restrictive) appositive phrases add essential information to specify the noun phrases they modify.
  • Nonessential (non-restrictive) appositive phrases add nonessential information to provide an extra description for the noun phrases they modify.

Frequently Asked Questions about Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that modifies the noun phrase immediately next to it.

To identify an appositive phrase, ask yourself these questions:


  • Is this phrase a noun phrase immediately before or after another noun phrase?
  • Does the phrase modify the noun phrase next to it?
  • Does the phrase add information that either specifies the noun phrase or provides it with an extra description?


If the answer is yes to every question, you're probably looking at an appositive phrase!

My sister (the best baker in town) baked my wedding cake. 


The appositive phrase (the best baker in town) modifies the noun phrase my sister. It is a nonessential appositive phrase, because it adds extra information about the noun phrase without distracting from the full sentence.

Appositive phrases fall into two categories: essential and nonessential. Essential (restrictive) appositive phrases help to define the noun phrases they modify, and nonessential (non-restrictive) appositive phrases add a bonus description to the noun phrases they modify.

  • Appositive phrases can add bonus information to a noun phrase, without distracting from the rest of the sentence.
  • Appositive phrases can help to define a noun phrase.
  • Appositive phrases can combine simple sentences and help writing flow naturally.

Final Appositive Phrase Quiz

Question

What is an appositive phrase?

Show answer

Answer

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that modifies the noun phrase immediately next to it.

Show question

Question

What are the uses of appositive phrases?

Show answer

Answer

Appositive phrases can:


  • Add bonus information to a noun phrase, without distracting from the rest of the sentence.
  • Help to define a noun phrase.
  • Combine simple sentences and help writing flow naturally.

Show question

Question

Is this appositive phrase essential or nonessential?


Your friend the zookeeper got fired.

Show answer

Answer

Essential

Show question

Question

What is the difference between an essential appositive phrase and a nonessential appositive phrase?

Show answer

Answer

An essential (restrictive) appositive phrase limits and specifies the noun phrase it modifies. A nonessential (non-restrictive) appositive phrase adds extra description to the noun phrase it modifies, but doesn't restrict it.

Show question

Question

Is this appositive phrase essential or nonessential?


My worst enemy, the mayor's son, was kicked out of the competition!

Show answer

Answer

Nonessential

Show question

Question

Is this appositive phrase essential or nonessential?


The only U.S. state that used to be its own nation, Texas has a uniquely complicated state constitution.

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Answer

Nonessential

Show question

Question

Are these appositive phrases essential or nonessential?


John Adams the president should not be confused with John Adams the minimalist composer.

Show answer

Answer

Essential

Show question

Question

Is this appositive phrase essential or nonessential?


Jake, her best friend since kindergarten, didn't show up to her birthday party.

Show answer

Answer

Nonessential

Show question

Question

How would you use an appositive phrase to combine these sentences?


Watson is the first car I ever drove. Watson has over 100,000 miles now.

Show answer

Answer

Watson, the first car I ever drove, has over 100,000 miles now.

Show question

Question

How would you use an appositive phrase to combine these sentences?


The 18th-century composer was Ludwig Van Beethoven. He wrote his last pieces after losing his hearing.

Show answer

Answer

The 18th-century composer Ludwig Van Beethoven wrote his last pieces after losing his hearing.

Show question

Question

What questions can you ask yourself to identify an appositive phrase?

Show answer

Answer

1. Is this phrase a noun phrase immediately before or after another noun phrase?


2. Does this phrase modify the noun phrase next to it?


3. Does the phrase add information that either specifies the noun phrase or provides it with an extra description?

Show question

Question

Is this phrase an appositive phrase?


The park I've played in for my whole life just closed permanently.

Show answer

Answer

Not an appositive phrase

Show question

Question

Is this phrase an appositive phrase?


Your coworker, the nephew of the CEO, will always get preferential treatment.

Show answer

Answer

Appositive phrase

Show question

Question

Are these phrases appositive phrases?


I'm talking about Maddie from drama class, not Maddie from soccer.

Show answer

Answer

Not an appositive phrase

Show question

Question

Is this phrase an appositive phrase?


My car Watson is almost ten years old.

Show answer

Answer

Appositive phrase

Show question

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