Definition of Appositive

An appositive phrase is a noun phrase that identifies or renames another noun phrase directly before or after it. For example, you might say, “I’m going to see my dentist, Dr. Parkins.” In this case, “Dr. Parkins” is an appositive phrase because the name identifies exactly who the dentist is. The two phrases are said to be “in apposition,” and the one that does the renaming or identifying is called the appositive phrase.

The definition of appositive is such that an appositive phrase can come anywhere in a sentence, at the beginning, middle, or end. You can see this in the following example (appositives in bold):

  • The fastest man ever timed, Usain Bolt is competing in Rio this summer.
  • Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, is competing in the Brazil Olympics.
  • Olympic spectators are looking forward to watching Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter.

The word appositive comes from the Latin words ad and positio, meaning “near” and “placement,” respectively.

Common Examples of Appositive

Most journalistic writing contains many examples of appositives in order to identify different interviewees, concepts, and situations potentially unfamiliar to the reader. Here are some excerpts from New York Times articles:

Dr. Sharma and his colleagues had every reason to believe that they were closing in on the Great White Whale of modern science: the Higgs boson, a particle whose existence would explain all the others then known and how they fit together into the jigsaw puzzle of reality.

—“Chasing the Higgs Boson” By Dennis Overbye

Youth hockey in western Canada is a perpetual series of long drives across dark and icy landscapes….It meant a radio usually tuned to hockey — maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs, Derek’s favorite team, or the hometown junior league team, the Melfort Mustangs.

—“Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer” by John Branch

Elyse Saugstad, a professional skier, wore a backpack equipped with an air bag, a relatively new and expensive part of the arsenal that backcountry users increasingly carry to ease their minds and increase survival odds in case of an avalanche.

—“Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” by John Branch

David Kocieniewski, a business reporter for The New York Times, devoted a year to digging out and exposing the obscure provisions that businesses and the wealthiest Americans exploit to drive their tax bills down to rock bottom.

—Abstract for David Kocieniewski’s article “But Nobody Pays That”

As the scandal over Bo Xilai continues to reverberate, the authorities here are eager to paint Mr. Bo, a fallen leader who was one of 25 members of China’s ruling Politburo, as a rogue operator who abused his power, even as his family members accumulated a substantial fortune.

—“‘Princelings’ in China Use Family Ties to Gain Riches” by David Barboza and Sharon LaFraniere

We also use many appositive examples in regular speech such as saying, “My best friend, Marisa, told me…” or “When I was in New Orleans I went to the Cafe du Monde, this amazing place for beignets.”

Significance of Appositive in Literature

Appositive examples are numerous in literature, as they are in regular conversation, journalism, advertising, songwriting, speeches, and so on. Generally, appositives serve to give the reader just a bit more information about the thing in question. They are most often found when introducing the reader to a new character or concept. Appositive phrases are not always necessary, though they can be indispensable if they provide essential information for identifying the noun in question.

Examples of Appositive in Literature

Example #1

Wulfgar spake, the Wendles’ chieftain,
whose might of mind to many was known,
his courage and counsel: “The king of Danes,
the Scyldings’ friend, I fain will tell,
the Breaker-of-Rings, as the boon thou askest,
the famed prince, of thy faring hither,
and, swiftly after, such answer bring
as the doughty monarch may deign to give.”

(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)

In this excerpt from the anonymously written epic poem Beowulf, there are several noun phrases which can be considered examples of appositive phrases. The character Wulfgar speaks of the “King of Danes,” who he then identifies as “the Scyldings’ friend,” and later, “the Breaker-of-Rings,” and “the famed prince.”

Example #2

In an armchair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see. She was dressed in rich materials—satins, and lace and silks—all of white.

(Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)

This excerpt from Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations is proof that not all appositive examples are meant to rename a person. In this case, the appositive phrase is “satins, and lace and silks” and serves to identify the specific rich materials.

Example #3

Emma spared no exertions to maintain this happier flow of ideas, and hoped, by the help of backgammon, to get her father tolerably through the evening, and be attacked by no regrets but her own. The backgammon-table was placed; but a visitor immediately afterwards walked in and made it unnecessary.
Mr. Knightley, a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty, was not only a very old and intimate friend of the family, but particularly connected with it, as the elder brother of Isabella’s husband. He lived about a mile from Highbury, was a frequent visitor, and always welcome, and at this time more welcome than usual, as coming directly from their mutual connexions in London.

(Emma by Jane Austen)

In the above excerpt from Jane Austen’s novel Emma, the narrator identifies Mr. Knightley as “a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty.” Later, this qualification will serve important as he proves to be a central character and, indeed, a romantic interest for a few of the female characters.

Example #4

One night—it was on the twentieth of March, 1888—I was returning from a journey to a patient (for I had now returned to civil practice), when my way led me through Baker Street.

(“A Scandal in Bohemia” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

In this appositive example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s narrator of Watson mentions a night in which he happened to pay a visit to Sherlock Holmes. The actual night is not important, and thus this example of an appositive phrase is unnecessary, yet it serves to ground the story in a particular timeframe.

Example #5

Mrs. Figg, their batty old neighbor, came panting into sight. Her grizzled gray hair was escaping from its hairnet, a clanking string shopping bag was swinging from her wrist, and her feet were halfway out of her tartan carpet slippers. Harry made to stow his wand hurriedly out of sight, but—

(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling)

In this excerpt from J. K. Rowling’s fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, a minor character is introduced with the appositive phrase “their batty old neighbor.” Though this phrase seems inconsequential at the time, and a reflection of Harry’s opinion of her, in fact Mrs. Figg turns out to be anything but batty.

Test Your Knowledge of Appositive

1. Which of the following statements is the correct appositive definition?
A. A word that modifies a verb or adjective.
B. A word that describes an action.
C. A noun phrase that identifies another noun phrase.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. A is the definition of an adverb, and B is the definition of a verb.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following sentences is true?
A. An appositive example must contain a verb.
B. An example of an appositive does not necessarily identify or rename a person.
C. An appositive phrase cannot be longer than four or five words.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

The Dursleys fell silent. Harry listened to a jingle about Fruit ’N Bran breakfast cereal while he watched Mrs. Figg, a batty, cat-loving old lady from nearby Wisteria Walk, amble slowly past. She was frowning and muttering to herself.

Which of the following phrases in an example of appositive in this excerpt?
A. Mrs. Figg…
B. …a batty, cat-loving old lady from nearby Wisteria Walk…
C. …amble slowly past.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

4. Which of the following excerpts from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations contains an appositive example?

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.


As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.


The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #4″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. The appositive phrase is “Mrs. Joe Gargery.” The other two sentences do not contain an example of an appositive phrase.[/spoiler]