Strange Appositives

It is passing strange that in my time as a blogger, I find myself writing about appositives twice. I mean: Really? How many people even know what an appositive is? And why do I end up writing about them twice?

But before I answer those questions, I absolutely must address my deliberate use of the expression “passing strange.” These words come from Shakespeare’s Othello, where the word passing is an adjective meaning exceedingly. So something that was passing strange was exceedingly strange. John Milton and Henry Fielding also used the word passing to mean exceedingly.

Now, to be truthful, what is exceedingly strange might not be that I’m writing about appositives twice, so much as that another writer, David Owen, has a totally different, but absolutely accurate, assessment of a certain kind of appositive. 

Before I explain Owen’s reaction to appositives, let me briefly explain my own. To the best of my memory, I internalized appositives in my eleventh grade English class. I was probably introduced to them before that, but it was in eleventh grade that it truly dawned on me that an appositive (a noun or noun phrase which modifies another noun, adding new, usually needed information) allowed a writer to quickly explain a lot — to quickly add necessary information without resorting to full sentences.

Example: Mrs Drummond, my high school English teacher, taught me all about appositives. 

In the above sentence the information set off by commas (my high school English teacher) modifies/describes Mrs. Drummond. Or, if you will, adds new, needed information, giving the name of my teacher. 

It was this form of the appositive — the short, necessary-information-conveyer — that I examined in my first blog on appositives, Exposition Through Appositives.

David Owen, however, looks at appositives in a different way. More than fifty years have passed since I learned about appositives in high school, and during that time many journalists and other writers have changed the position of the appositive in a sentence. And changing its position has in essence changed the impact of its usage . . . and irked David Owen to no end. He refuses to call this  modern usage an “appositive.” Instead, he labels it Bad Thing.

In his New Yorker article titled “The Objectively Objectionable Grammatical Pet Peeve,” Owen argues that within the last 100 years these bad appositives have become part of the pretentious writing which permeates our culture. Specifically, these bad appositives come at the beginning of a sentence in such a way that when the noun they are modifying finally comes into play, it seems to twist the sentence into a new direction. In other words, these bad appositives make us think the sentence is going down Elm Street, but when we reach the main clause we learn that the sentence is driving down Sycamore Lane. 

Here’s one of the examples Owen gives in his article: An officer of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, she served for twenty years as the president of her local tennis club.

As Owen points out, bad appositives make sentences clumsy (because we may have to read the sentence twice after we realize it got us off to a false start). I don’t know about you, but when I read the example above, I think that the subject is an officer and that this will soon be followed by a verb, as in An officer of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association presided over the disputed tennis match. . . or something like that.

But no. The noun introduced in the first part of the sentence is not the subject of the sentence, as we realize when we stumble across she served. At that point we must backtrack in our thoughts and realize that the subject is she and the verb is served — and that the beginning words are an appositive.

One of Owen’s strongest objections to this front-loaded appositive is that nobody ever speaks this way, putting a long appositive at the head of a sentence. Nobody says out loud, A good-fielding second baseman, Margaret was an asset to her team. We may write that way, but we do not speak that way. Nor do we text or post on social media that way. In other words, the long bad appositive is unnatural. Speaking and posting, we are far more likely to say something like “Margaret was a good-fielding second baseman and an asset to her team.”

I found Owen’s article interesting, and I now wonder if I’ve ever been guilty  of writing bad appositives. I hope not. But if I have, one thing’s for sure: I will be on the  lookout for them in my future writing!


Neither good nor bad appositives are covered in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies — but several other grammatical tips are, as are mystery-writing considerations.

One response to “Strange Appositives”

  1. Kripe…more rules :)! That really is interesting Barbara, especially when you point out the fact we do NOT speak as such. Um, was your English teacher’s first name “Bulldog” by any chance?

    Liked by 1 person

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