What Is an Appositive?

Examples of Appositives in George Orwell's 'A Hanging'

George Orwell
George Orwell (Eric Blair), 1903-1950.

An appositive—a noun or noun phrase that identifies or renames another noun—is a handy way of adding details to a sentence. The term comes from the Latin word for "placing close by," and an appositive usually appears right after the word or phrase that it renames.

You've just seen one example of an appositive—in the first sentence of this article. Here, from the opening of George Orwell's essay "A Hanging," are two more:

  • We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages.
  • He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes.

A few paragraphs later, Orwell lines up a pair of appositives to identify another character:

Francis, [1]the head jailer, [2]a fat Dravidian in a white drill suit and gold spectacles, waved his black hand.

In each of Orwell's sentences, the appositive could be substituted for the noun it renames (cells, Hindu, Francis). Or it could be deleted without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. Set off by commas, such appositives are said to be nonrestrictive.

In some cases, an appositive might be thought of as a simplified adjective clause (a word group beginning with who or which). This next sentence, for example, relies on an adjective clause to identify the subject, hangman:

The hangman, who was a gray-haired convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside the machine.

Now look at George Orwell's original version of the sentence, with the adjective clause reduced to a more concise appositive:

The hangman, a gray-haired convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside the machine.

Viewed this way, appositives offer a way to cut the clutter in our writing.

And that, you'll have to admit, makes it a handy little device—a compact grammatical structure.

For a more detailed discussion of appositives, see How to Build Sentences with Appositives.