Noun Phrase Appositives

I remember having precisely one high school English teacher who purported to “teach grammar,” and did so from a text that was thicker than a fist and duller than a rolling pin — the kind of book that wields the rules of syntax like a blunt instrument.

Now, this was a long time ago, so it’s possible I’m getting some of these details wrong, but this is what I remember: This instructor, whom I’ll call Mr. Knobs, after the surfing-related “condition” he claimed helped him get a medical exemption from the draft during Vietnam, “taught grammar” by the simple expedient of having the class read a section of the book and complete some of the exercises therein, while he puttered around at his desk. In retrospect, I think it’s likely he didn’t know much about formal grammar himself, because I certainly don’t remember him providing any instruction that was of use on the subject. Or any subject, for that matter.

He must have been really pressed for ways to kill those 50 minutes, because the only other task I remember doing regularly in that class was “speed writing,” an activity in which he’s put on a record (a genuine record, on an honest-to-God record player, well after the invention of the compact disc and well before the advent of the hipster reproduction record player) and we’d have to write the lyrics, as quickly as possible.

It might not have been this song every time, but it felt like it.

You may be wondering whether we learned any shorthand, or note-taking tricks. If we did, it wasn’t from Mr. Knobs.

At any rate, I “learned grammar” not from Mr. Knobs, but the way most of us do — by speaking and reading. Read enough, and your written grammar will likely be adequate, provided you’re not reading total trash all the time.

You might not know what a noun phrase appositive is called when it’s at home, but you’ll have no trouble understanding its function or putting it to use. After all, there’s one in the first sentence of this blog post and another in the third paragraph, and you made it here with no apparent trouble.


If you read the news, then you’re probably deeply upset about the state of the world, but at least you’re also seeing lots of examples of noun phrase appositives. (Yay?)

Here’s an example that I pulled up from the BBC News site as I wrote this post, from an article about the downgrading of the UK’s credit rating; the second line of the article contained an NPA, and it was the first full-text article I clicked on:

Moody’s, one of the major ratings agencies, downgraded the UK to an Aa2 rating from Aa1.

See the phrase “one of the major ratings agencies”? That’s a noun phrase appositive, so called because they are noun phrases that sit in apposition to (next to or beside) other noun phrases or nouns. Not a very inventive name, but it does what it says on the tin.

Here’s another example a few sentences further in the same article:

The other major agencies, Fitch and S&P, changed their ratings in 2016, with S&P cutting it two notches from AAA to AA, and Fitch lowering it from AA+ to AA.

The noun phrase appositive here is “Fitch and S&P,” and it identifies “the other major agencies.”

So: a noun phrase appositive, or NPA, is a little noun phrase that hangs out next to another noun or noun phrase, providing additional info about the original with maximum efficiency. They can be more general, more specific, or the same level of specificity as the nouns they modify. Moreover, you can stack them like LEGO bricks, one atop the other, and you can even embed other phrasal and clausal structures in them, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Useful, eh?

Say I want to introduce a person. I can easily plunk that information into the sentence using an NPA:

A self-proclaimed “diplomat,” Leia Organa, the princess from Alderaan, was detained on suspicion of having passed vital intelligence to agents affiliated with the Resistance.

Here, the noun phrase “A self-proclaimed ‘diplomat'” is modified with the more specific NPAs “Leia Organa” and “the princess from Alderaan.”

Note the way the NPAs are punctuated here — each one enclosed in commas. That’s probably the most common option, though you can also use parentheses (a good choice to convey that you’re pulling your reader aside for a quick moment) or the long dash — a choice I’m rather fond of, at least in informal writing, for the breezy tone it lends.

Why are NPAs, as I mentioned earlier, so common in news writing? Simple — the overriding principle of news writing is to tell the reader everything they need to know, as efficiently as possible, in order from most to least importance. NPAs are a handy tool in the writer’s toolkit for situations in which a person, place, or thing must be identified, categorized, contextualized, or described, doing those jobs with a minimum of excess words and repetition.

They also crop up a fair amount in academic writing, where writers frequently need to introduce sources (or methods, or subjects, or what have you) with a minimum of fuss. In the case of textual sources, this introduction is called a “signal phrase.” Here’s an example:

To answer the question of “who shot first,” Han Solo or bounty hunter Greedo, Star Wars scholar Guy Imadeup, author of “Deconstructing Antisocial Behavior Patterns in the Canonical Cantina Context,” analyzed the A New Hope cantina scene frame-by-frame and concluded that “Greedo provoked this occasion of interpersonal violence, but Han’s actions brought it to its grave conclusion.”

Note the NPA, which I’ve put in boldface type. Alongside the author’s name (the noun being modified by the NPA) and the description of Guy Imadeup as a “Star Wars scholar” the reader has plenty of information to contextualize and evaluate the credibility of the source by the time they get to the quote itself. Some disciplines go in for more of this kind of contextualization than others, but in general, signal phrases are an expected part of responsible source use and appropriate citation in academic writing, and NPAs frequently come in handy when writers are crafting them.

This isn’t to say that NPAs are absent from other types of writing — they certainly turn up everywhere from songs to plays to novels to speeches to Tweets to recipes. Any time a writer needs to neatly fold in a bit of identifying information about a noun, the NPA will be ready at hand. To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time to every purpose — including the noun phrase appositive.

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