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Appositive Noun

An appositive noun essentially provides another way of describing the subject of a sentence, and thereby adds richness to the description provided by a given sentence. It is usually a word or phrase that is set off by commas within a sentence. For example, you might say "my friend", and then add the description, "a brilliant man". Either phrase could be the main subject, and either one an appositive noun; you just have two ways of talking about the same subject.

Definition of appositive nouns

In how many ways might you refer to your favorite or least-favorite person, place, or thing within the same sentence?

Say, for instance, that your English teacher, Mr. McArthur, asked you to write an essay on the works of Jane Austen, your favorite author, and it would be due by the 13th, a Friday.

Notice how three of the nouns in that last sentence—teacher, Jane Austen, and the 13th—are all followed by descriptive words or clauses: Mr. McArthur, your favorite author, and Friday. Those descriptions are known as appositives, which could be any noun, noun phrase, or noun clause—usually marked off by commas—that grammatically parallel the meaning or significance of a main noun. (See additional ways to describe nouns using adjectives.) 

How to use appositive nouns in sentences

The role of an appositive noun or noun phrase is to stand in apposition (grammatic parallel) to the main noun that appears directly beforehand.

  • Example: My second dog, Wolfgang, was a dachshund, a wiener dog, who lived for 16 and a half years.
    • Breakdown: The appositives are Wolfgang and wiener dog, which respectively stand in apposition to dog and dachshund.

    Example: Jason has always lived in Portland, his place of birth, but did spend two years each in Boston, as a teenager, and Los Angeles, in his young adulthood.
    • Breakdown: Three subordinate clauses, but only one—his place of birth—that stands in apposition to the preceding noun.

  • Example: My current computer, an HP Envy 23, is the third computer I've owned since 2000, the year I bought a 400 mhz Celeron.
    • Breakdown: The two appositives are HP Envy 23 and the entire last clause, which respectively stand in apposition to computer and 2000.

In some cases, appositives are introduced with words like "namely" or phrases like "in other words."

  • Example: The world's largest land mammal, namely the elephant, is also one of the most intelligent species.

Practice identifying appositive nouns

In the following examples, see if you can spot the appositives:

  • I went to the store and bought strawberries, my favorite fruit, as well as three tomatoes, one green and two red, and two sticks of halva, a tahini-based candy.
  • Betty, my secretary and mistress, lied and told my wife, Karen, that I was going out to a game after work with Bob and Fred, my two colleagues on the Exxon account.
  • My favorite band, Genesis, were one of the few groups during the 70s and 80s, the two best decades for rock music, to sell more records as their lineup, which dropped from five two three members between 1975 and 1977, got smaller and smaller.
  • When MTV, Music Television, first went on the air in 1981, it had a profound impact on American popular taste because they mostly played videos by newer British acts, who hadn't been getting FM airplay, instead of the era's established artists, who weren't yet making videos.

For the sake of readability, some of those lengthier noun clauses would look more organized between em dashes. Nonetheless, the above examples demonstrate that the rules for using appositives are loose as long as they do their purpose of renaming or describing a main noun in a sentence.

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