Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

How the appositive can give life and texture to writing

In a recent posting, Forum member Miss Mae 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 (“Shouldn’t there be a limit to constructing appositives?”), 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 posting 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)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

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.
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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Previously Featured Essay:

Though very rich and diverse, English can’t inflect for the future tense

Despite the overwhelming richness of the English language, its verbs have the handicap of not being able to morph by themselves into the future tense. As we all know, they inflect only for the past, present, and perfect tenses. For instance, “give” turns to “gave” in the past tense, “gives” in the present tense, and “given” in the perfect tense; in most cases, in fact, English verbs inflect themselves for the perfect tense in the same way as they do for the past tense, as in “wanted” for both the past and perfect tenses of “want.” Yet when they turn to the future, all of the English verbs can’t do anything to themselves; they simply don’t have the ability to inflect for it.

English verbs never got to internally work out an inflection for the future tense, unlike, say, Tagalog with its future-tense “pupunta” (“will go”) for the infinitive “pagpunta” (“to go”). It’s as if the Angles (the ancient forebears of the English people), too preoccupied perhaps with settling in what is now England after crossing the channel from the European mainland, never found the need or the time to work out the future tense into their verbs.

To compensate for this structural oversight in its verb-building efforts, however, the English language came up with no less than six ways of reckoning with the future. The first two, of course, we already know by heart. They are the simple future tense, which puts the auxiliary verb “will” ahead of the verb stem, as in “will give,” and the future perfect tense, which uses the so-called temporal indicators to situate actions and events in various times in the future, as in the use of the future perfect “will have given” in the following sentence: “By this time tomorrow, she will have given me her answer to my marriage proposal.” In both cases, instead of inflecting itself, the verb “give” took the expedient of harnessing one and two auxiliary verbs, respectively, to make its two visions of the future work.

English then dealt with the future tense even more purposively by coming up with four more grammatical stratagems to express it, in the process making its future tense more complicated than that of some other languages with elaborate future-tense inflections built into their verbs. These future-tense forms and the grammatical structures English developed for them are as follows: the arranged future, also known as the present continuous; the predicted future; the timetable future, also known as the present simple; and the described futures, also known as the future continuous.

All of these forms evoke the future by appending to the main verb particular combinations of auxiliary verbs in different tenses. The choice among these forms depends on which part of the future is important to us or to those telling us about it, and their semantic value lies in the fact that they enable us to make fine distinctions as to whether what will happen is a regular event; as to whether something is unavoidable or prearranged or something we or other people want or wish to happen; as to how long the wait will be until something happens; and as to the degree of certainty that something will happen.

We all know that the future is extremely flexible; in contrast, there’s really nothing we can do to change the past and there’s not really much we can do to alter the evolving present. Unless we are a dyed-in-the-wool believers in determinism and predetermination—both aver that all acts of will or natural occurrences are causally predetermined by preceding events, natural laws, or the divine—we will find many occasions to use the arranged future in our spoken or written prose. The uniquely human ability to plan and shape future events comes into play here.

The arranged future or present continuous means that we have decided what to do but have not yet executed that decision: “We are doing overtime work this coming weekend; client wants the marketing plan first thing on Monday.” “The charming rogue begged on bended knees so I’m pardoning him next month for that act of humility.” “She is leaving with me for my scheduled sabbatical in Rome; all the bookings have already been arranged.”

Note that the arranged future uses the present-tense form of the auxiliary “to be” in tandem with the present participle (“-ing” form) of the verb: “are doing,” “am pardoning,” and “is leaving.” This is the so-called continuous future, which indicates that the future action started when the decision was made and will continue until the moment that the action is finished. To make sure that it doesn’t wrongly convey the idea that the future is happening right now, the arranged future must often use clear temporal indicators, like “this coming weekend,” “next month,” and “my scheduled sabbatical in Rome” in the sentences given as examples in the preceding paragraph.

From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the author, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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