Monthly Archives: December 2010

What is an appositive, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 13, 2010.

So we’ve done participles and gerunds, and because @glamAtude asked whether we could talk about appositives, here we go:

An appositive is a word or phrase that follows a noun and gives more information about it.

It can be a single noun:
Her new puppy, Paperboy, came home yesterday.puppy

It can be a noun phrase:
Paperboy, her new puppy, came home yesterday.

It can be a noun phrase plus a prepositional phrase:
Her new puppy, a black-and-white ball of energy, came home yesterday.
Her new puppy, a mutt from the pound, came home yesterday.

And so on. You can take out the appositive and you’ll still have a complete sentence.

Relative clauses are not the same as appositives, though they may convey the same information. Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun and have a verb in the clause. Appositives are simple phrases, no verb.
Relative clause:
Betty, who is my neighbor, said …
Betty, my neighbor, said …

Usually appositives are set off with commas (one before and one after), because they’re adding extra information about the noun. These are called “non-essential” or “non-restrictive” appositives.

But sometimes an appositive is necessary to set apart or distinguish the noun:
Paul Simon the senator (as opposed to Paul Simon the singer)
Her dog Paperboy (as opposed to her dog Scout)

These are called “essential” or “restrictive” appositives, and are not set off with commas.

A note on agreement: The verb agrees with the main noun, not the appositive.
Truffles (plural), a luxury food (singular), are (plural) …
Paperboy (singular), one of the nicest dogs (plural) at the pound, is (singular) …


Which one? What kind?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 6, 2010.

Which” and “what” each have more than one function in English, but what we’re talking about in this post is when they’re used as interrogative adjectives, that is, in front of nouns in a question:

Which theater did you say that movie was at?
What show did you see?
What college did she go to?
Which subjects did she study?

In most instances, either “which” or “what” is fine; they’re largely interchangeable. So much so, in fact, that when a few of us copy editors delved into our dozens of grammar and usage manuals — and we always love an excuse to do that — we found the topic addressed in only one book, and not our usual go-tos of Garner, Fowler, Bremner and Walsh. Even Strunk and White have naught to say on the topic.

But, if you want to be particular, here’s the guideline as found in Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s “Torn Wings and Faux Pas”:

“Which” is preferred when there is a limited number of choices:
Which topping do you want, pepperoni or anchovies?
And “what” is preferred with unlimited choices:
What foods did you try in Italy?

Before a stated or implied “one,” always use “which”:
Which (one) of your cousins got married last year?

And before “of these,” always use “which”:dresses
Which of these bridesmaid dresses is the least ugly?

Luckily, no one seems to have a problem with using the other interrogative adjective, “whose,” besides writing it like the contracted form of “who is.”