Elizabeth O'Brien

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. 

When To Use Commas
With Appositives

Appositives are nouns that rename other nouns. (Remember that nouns are words that name people, places, things, or ideas.) They can be made of one word or more than one word. 

The movie Green Book won the award for best picture.

"Shallow," a song written by Lady Gaga, won the award for best original song. 

Green Book is an appositive renaming the noun movieA song written by Lady Gaga is an appositive phrase renaming the noun "Shallow."

Seeing them in a sentence diagram can help you understand that they are renaming another noun since we diagram them in parentheses right after the noun they are renaming. 

Sentence Diagram of an Appositive

The author Victor Hugo was born in France.

Since you can already find a whole lesson on appositives here, I won't focus on the definition in this lesson. Instead, this lesson will cover the tricky subject of comma usage with appositives. When should you use commas? When shouldn't you? You're about to find out! 

The Two Types of Appositives

Before we talk about commas, there is something important that you need to know.

You already know that appositives are nouns that rename other nouns. By their very definition, they give us more information about the noun that they are renaming. (In order to rename the noun, they must use a new word, or group of words, to do so, right?)

Appositives are not all the same, though. There are two ways that they can rename a noun.

They can define the noun, or they can comment on the noun. 

Think about that for just a moment. 

If an appositive defines a noun, do you think it's essential to the meaning of the sentence? 

Yes! If it's defining the noun, we need it. Notice that we need the appositive to understand the following example.

The movie Green Book won the award for best picture.

Just try to make sense of that sentence without the appositive. You can't! Once you take it out, the sentence is basically meaningless. Why? Because Green Book is defining the noun movie.

Now, let's change gears. If an appositive comments on a noun, do you think it's essential to the sentence? 

No! It's offering a comment, which is nice, but it's not essential to conveying the meaning of the sentence. Notice that you can take out the appositive in the following example, and you'd still be able to understand the sentence. 

"Shallow," a song written by Lady Gaga, won the award for best original song. 

We can take a song written by Lady Gaga right out of the sentence, and the sentence would still convey the meaning. (There aren't many popular songs titled "Shallow.") Why? Because this appositive is simply commenting on the noun.

This distinction is very important, so before you move on, make sure that you understand it.

1. Defining appositives are essential. (We need them.) 

2. Commenting appositives are nonessential. (We don't need them.)

Defining = Don't Use Commas 

As you know, appositives that define nouns are essential to the meaning of the sentence. We need them in order for the sentence to make sense. Here's the scoop on punctuating these guys.

Defining appositives don't have commas around them. 

The movie Green Book won the award for best picture.

The author Victor Hugo was born in France.

One way to remember this rule is that defining and don't both begin with the letter d

However ... I have some pretty bad news for you. "Defining appositives" isn't actually a grammar term. Seriously. I'm just using it to help you learn and remember this rule. (I'm sorry if I just burst your bubble.) The good news is that you can use this term as a mental stepping stone to the actual name. 

The actual name for a defining appositive is an essential appositive or a restrictive appositive.

That's pretty cool, right? Their name is really descriptive since they are essential to the meaning of the sentence. You can also say that they restrict the meaning of the noun that they rename. 

Defining, essential, and restrictive are all ways to describe the same kind of appositive.

Use whichever term resonates with you most. Just know that essential and restrictive are the legitimate grammar names, but my little memory trick with the letter d only works with the word defining

Essential/Restrictive/Defining Appositives Don't Use Commas 

Commenting = Use Commas 

You know that commenting appositives are not essential to the sentence's meaning. Here's the scoop on punctuating them. 

Commenting appositives need commas around them.

"Shallow," a song written by Lady Gaga, won the award for best original song. 

My sister, a French teacher, studied abroad in France during high school.

One way to remember this rule is that commenting and commas both start with the letter c. 

You have probably already guessed what I'm about to tell you next. "Commenting appositives" isn't an actual grammar term. Again, I'm just using it to help you learn and remember this rule.

The actual name for a commenting appositive is a nonessential appositive or a nonrestrictive appositive. (The prefix non- means not.)

Again, this is the perfect descriptive name because they are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. They don't restrict the meaning of the noun that they rename. 

Commenting, nonessential, and nonrestrictive are all ways to describe the same kind of appositive.

Again, feel free to use whichever term you like best, but know that nonessential and nonrestrictive are the legitimate names. And, of course, my memory trick with the letter c only works with the name commenting

Nonessential/Nonrestrictive/Commenting Appositives Need Commas

Summary & Parting Words

How did that go? I hope that this lesson has been helpful for you. Here's a summary of what you just learned.

Essential/restrictive/defining appositives don't use commas.

Nonessential/nonrestrictive/commenting appositives need commas.

You might also enjoy these lessons.

Appositives Video

What's an appositive?

Comma Splice Video

What is a comma splice?

Elizabeth O'Brien from Grammar Revolution

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