The Two Types of Appositives: Restrictive and Nonrestrictive
An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that restates or renames another noun. Here, the noun Robin Lang restates or renames defendant:
- The defendant, Robin Lang, did not hire a lawyer.
But properly punctuating appositives depends on the type of appositive, and the type depends on whether the appositive is essential or additional to the meaning of the original noun. The first type (essential) is called a restrictive appositive. This type of appositive renames or restates the noun in a way that is essential to a full understanding of the sentence. The appositive defines or restricts the original noun in a way that differentiates it from other nouns of that type. For example:
- The politician Jordan Lopez gave the commencement address.
This sentence implies that there are multiple politicians and that the one who gave the commencement address was Jordan Lopez. That makes sense. If the appositive were set off with commas, it would create confusing implications:
- The politician, Jordan Lopez, gave the commencement address.
This sentence implies that there is only one politician (in the world?) or that the politician is being differentiated from other nonpoliticians in some way. The commas are unnecessary. Another example using my own name:
- The dean asked Wayne Schiess the legal-writing teacher to edit the manuscript.
This sentence implies that there are multiple people named Wayne Schiess and that the dean asked one of those Wayne Schiesses—the one who is a legal-writing teacher—to edit the manuscript. Thus, the sentence doesn’t really make sense and should be punctuated like this:
- The dean asked Wayne Schiess, the legal-writing teacher, to edit the manuscript.
That example, with commas, is a nonrestrictive appositive. Nonrestrictive (also called “nonessential”) appositives present what might be considered additional information, offered as extra or “by the way.” You’d still have a sensible sentence without the appositive.
Returning to our first example:
- The defendant, Robin Lang, did not hire a lawyer. This means–The defendant [, whose name is Robin Lang, by the way,] did not hire a lawyer. And without the appositive, it would still make sense–The defendant did not hire a lawyer.
Besides a pair of commas, you have other punctuation options for nonrestrictive appositives. If the restating phrase comes at the end of the sentence, use a comma and a period:
- The party who did not hire a lawyer was the defendant, Robin Lang.
And you may set off appositives with a pair of parentheses, a pair of dashes, or a dash and a period:
- The defendant (Robin Lang) did not hire a lawyer.
- The defendant—Robin Lang—did not hire a lawyer.
- The party who did not hire a lawyer was the defendant—Robin Lang.
The most common mistake I see in using nonrestrictive appositives is failing to include the second comma:
- Wrong: The defendant, Robin Lang did not hire a lawyer.
- Wrong: Equitable adoption, a common-law doctrine may apply even in the absence of a court order.
The first example needs a comma after Lang; the second needs one after doctrine.
The differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives come up occasionally in legal writing. If there is only one party on a particular side (one buyer, one defendant, one appellee), then the appositive is likely to be nonrestrictive:
- The buyer, National Insurance, retained its trial counsel to handle the transaction.
But if there are multiple parties on one side, a restrictive appositive may be appropriate (depending on the context).
- The respondent Taylor Mura refused to cooperate with the respondent Media Group, LLC.
And of course, in legal writing, we sometimes omit the article the before party appellations:
- Respondent Taylor Mura refused to cooperate with respondent Media Group, LLC.
Properly punctuating appositives isn’t always simple, but it’s a fundamental and basic skill in legal writing. It’s something careful writers do well.