Apposition: unless you’re a grammar trivia fiend, you’ve probably never heard of this word, and think it is a typo for opposition. But apposition is a real word and, apart from being a useful word to know for crosswords and Scrabble, it describes a particular way that words can be arranged in part of a sentence. Apposition simply means words that are next to each other and generally can be used interchangeably or be left out without affecting the meaning of the sentence. (There are some types of apposition where both sets of words must appear in the sentence – when the appositive (another Scrabble word!) is defining or restrictive, but defining phrases and clauses is a large topic for another day.)
While there are technical quibbles among grammar experts about what exactly counts as apposition (somewhat like the arguments among medieval theologians about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin), it is probably easiest in practice to think of words in apposition as words that need to be the same part of speech – generally a noun or noun phrase – and that also fulfil the same function in a sentence – such as being the subject or object. (The parts of speech and parts of a sentence will be topics I cover next year.) If you’re unsure what a noun or object is, you don’t need to worry: just try swapping the words you think are in apposition for the words they follow. If the meaning doesn’t change, the words should be in apposition.
Why do we care at all about working out whether words are in apposition? It all comes back to commas, because words that are in apposition (with one important exception) are generally marked off by commas. In the following sentences, the words in apposition are shown in italics, and the words to which they are in apposition are in bold.
- Cliff’s Edge, a bold front-runner, is equal favourite for the derby.
- A flock of cockatoos settled in the neighbours’ tree, a flowering gum.
- My favourite film of the year, Ali’s Wedding, has been showing in a local cinema for nearly three months.
The terms in apposition could all be swapped around:
- A bold front-runner, Cliff’s Edge, is equal favourite for the derby.
- A flock of cockatoos settled in a flowering gum, the neighbours’ tree.
- Ali’s Wedding, my favourite film of the year, has been showing in a local cinema for nearly three months.
And in both versions of the sentences, the words in apposition could be left out:
- Cliff’s Edge is equal favourite for the derby./A bold front-runner is equal favourite for the derby.
- A flock of cockatoos settled in the neighbours’ tree./ A flock of cockatoos settled in a flowering gum.
- My favourite film has been showing in a local cinema for nearly three months./Ali’s Wedding has been showing in a local cinema for nearly three months.
As always in English grammar, there are exceptions to the rule. The most common one is where we use a person’s job description, title or relationship to someone else, followed by their name. The rule of thumb is that where only one person holds that position or fits that description, the name is treated like any other set of words in apposition and put in commas; where more than person fits the description, commas are not used. (This is one category within the topic of restrictive or defining terms that I mentioned earlier; stay tuned for a wider discussion next year.) For example:
- The prime minister, Mr Turnbull, was a supporter of the ‘yes’ campaign for same-sex marriage. (There is only one prime minister, so only person has that title or position.)
- Former prime minister Mr Abbott was a supporter of the ‘no’ campaign against same-sex marriage. (There are several former prime ministers, so there are a number of people who fit that description.)
- My sister, Rosemary, is a prize-winning cook. (I have only one sister, so only one person is in the category of ‘my sister’.)
- My friend Gabby suggested a topic for the website. (I have more than one friend, so there are several people who belong to that category.)
There is a further refinement to this exception. When a position is used as a title – for example, when we say Prime Minister Turnbull rather than the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull – the terms are not regarded as requiring commas. We understand this instinctively; after all, no one writes Mr, Turnbull or Pope, Francis or Dr, Watson. All titles that we use with personal names follow this no-comma rule.
If you have found this post interesting, you can find a full index to my other posts on the index page. To be notified when I post a new topic, follow me on Facebook! If you have any particular questions you’d like me to answer in future posts, just send me a message. I’m always interested to learn what people think, and how you came across this site, so please post a comment.
If you think you would be interested in either my complete grammar course or an individual customised online course (particularly suited for people who don’t live in Melbourne), just click your preferred option.