Monday, November 14, 2011

How the appositive can give life and texture to writing

In a recent posting, a member of Jose Carillo's English Forum asked if there should be a limit to the length of appositives. She posed the question regarding the sentence below, the lead of a recent sports news story, that has an extremely long and structurally convoluted appositive phrase (italics hers):

“Joe Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper who punched meat in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse before Rocky, won Olympic gold, and beat an undefeated Muhammad Ali to become one of the all-time heavyweight greats, died on Monday, his family said in a statement.

In my reply, I explained that that for clarity’s sake, there should indeed be a limit to the length and grammatical complexity of appositives. Going over that explanation of mine afterwards, however, I realized that I dwelt on appositives without first defining what they are and what their grammatical function is to begin with. I also checked my previous Forum postings over the past two years and discovered that I had hardly touched on appositives in a substantial way; also, in my recollection, hardly anybody had asked a question about them in the Forum during all that time.

Considering the importance of appositives to good writing, this is a major oversight that I now would like to correct. I am therefore posting in this week’s edition of the Forum an essay that I wrote about the subject for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. That essay, “Using appositives for texture and depth,” later formed part of Part II – “English Grammar Revisited” of my book English Plain and Simple. I’m sure that the discussions in that essay will adequately explain and clarify the role of appositives for everyone. (November 13, 2011)  

Using appositives for texture and depth

The problem with most bad writing is that it is often so general and lacking in texture and depth. The people, places, or things used as subjects seem to exist only in two-dimensional space, as in a crude cartoon movie, and the actions described all seem to crowd themselves in just a single timeframe. Hardly are there any telling details to give meat and substance to the bare-boned prose, making the writing invariably dry, bland, uninviting—and unreadable.

An efficient way of giving life and vitality to writing is to use appositives and appositive phrases. An appositive is simply a noun or pronoun that often comes directly after another word in a sentence, putting that word in better context by explaining it or by giving more information about it. An appositive phrase, on the other hand, consists of an appositive and all its modifiers, which maybe single words, phrases, or clauses. Both are powerful tools that allow the writer to identify or explain the nouns or pronouns he uses without having to come up with a new sentence or string of sentences to give the added information. This makes the buildup of ideas smoother, and frees the writing from digressions or asides that can impede its natural flow.

Here are some examples of sentences using appositives, which are indicated in italics: “My office assistant Joanna took the day off yesterday.” “Her husband, the jealous type, took her on an extended out-of-town trip.” “They rode on my friend’s car, a battered 1995 sedan, to a hillside farm in Batangas.” “The popular duo Batman and Robin were my favorite cartoon characters during my teens.” “The two provincial girls, adventurers with only a few hundred pesos between them, took the bus to Manila last night.” “Eduardo, the computer enthusiast and high school junior, helped fix the laptop of his teacher, Mrs. Alicia Santos.” “A positively enchanting singer, Elvira had many admirers at the club where she works.” Note that appositives may also come before the noun or pronoun they refer to; what is important is not to detach and set them apart from the noun or pronoun they modify.

An appositive phrase, of course, is simply an appositive joined by whatever modifiers come with it, as in this example: “Mayon Volcano, a major Philippine tourist attraction because of its majestic near-perfect cone, is found in Albay, a southeastern province in Luzon about 500 kilometers from Manila by land transport.” The first appositive in the sentence is the noun “attraction,” which is modified by the phrases “a major Philippine tourist” and “because of its majestic near-perfect cone.” The second appositive is the word “province,” modified by the phrases “southeastern,” “in Luzon,” and “about 500 kilometers from Manila by land transport.” Appositive phrases, by supplying much more information about the nouns or pronouns they modify, are even more effective than simple appositives in giving texture and depth to writing.

From the examples given above, it should be clear by now that an appositive or appositive phrase may either be essential or nonessential to a sentence. An essential or restrictive appositive narrows the meaning of the word it modifies and is necessary to maintain the meaning of the sentence. It is usually a single word or a set of words closely related to the preceding word, and does not require commas to set it off from the rest of the sentence. See the following examples: “The American actress Meryl Streep has been hailed for her consistently fine acting in a string of memorable films.” (Without “Meryl Streep” as appositive, we will never know the identity of the actress being talked about.) “The extremely popular Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay died in a tragic plane crash in the early 50s.” (Without “Ramon Magsaysay” as appositive, we may never know—unless we do some hard research—who that president was.)

A nonessential or nonrestrictive appositive, on the other hand, is not absolutely necessary to the meaning of a sentence; it may be omitted without altering the basic meaning. (It must be set off from the rest of the sentence by one or two commas, depending on its position in the sentence). Examples: “Alicia’s sister, a Philippine-born doctor, works as a senior anesthesiologist in a large hospital in the U.S. Midwest.” “The ‘Santacruzan,’ a colorful religious festival, is regularly held in many Philippine towns during the month of May.” (We still would know who the doctor is and what the event is even without the appositives “a Philippine doctor” and “a colorful religious festival.”)

Non-essential appositive phrases have the same optional role in sentences, as in this example: “December, usually the coldest month in tropical Philippines, is becoming more popular than June as the wedding month of choice.” We can take out the appositive “usually the coldest month in tropical Philippines” and still get a clear idea of what month it is that more and more Filipinos now prefer to get married.
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From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn the Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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