An Appositive Adjective is a traditional grammatical term for an adjective (or a series of adjectives) that follows a noun and, like a nonrestrictive appositive, is set off by commas or dashes.
Appositive adjectives often appear in pairs or groups of three (tricolons).
Examples and Observations
- "Arthur was a big boy, tall, strong, and broad-shouldered."
(Janet B. Pascal, Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Baker Street. Oxford University Press, 2000)
- "No Chinese emperor was more resplendently arrayed. As for the cigarette that he holds out, half smoked, to be taken and deposited by his valet, a whole civilization-urbane, authoritative, preposterous, and doomed-resides in that single gesture."
(Anthony Lane, "Life and Death Matters." The New Yorker, February 8, 2010)
- "Much of the greatest poetry, ancient and modern, has been occupied with a similar image: the figure of the abandoned woman."
(Lawrence Lipking, Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition. The University of Chicago Press, 1988)
- "Since then the starless night is gone,
The warm south-western showers have passed;
The trees, forlorn and bare, sigh on,
And shiver in the northern blast."
(Caroline May, "Dead Leaves," 1865)
- "Though Sfar's fantastic visual excesses distort some facts, they perfectly reflect the spirit of Gainsbourg's life and reputation-excessive, brilliant, controversial, and tortured."
(Michael Rabiger and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, 5th ed. Focal Press, 2013)
- "Melrose in his skullcap, sitting sideways in his chair, his cigarette held aloft, presented a profile which might have been that of some Venetian Doge, old, withered and crafty."
(Mary Augusta Ward, The Mating of Lydia, 1913)
Characteristics of Appositive Adjectives
"Appositive adjectives, which hardly ever spring naturally to our lips, differ from regular adjectives both in placement and in punctuation. They are placed after the noun or before the determiner, and they are set off by commas. When there is no determiner, they are still set off by commas. Their functions are somewhat different, too, although the difference is hard to pin down. It should be fairly easy to feel, however, if you read these three sentences aloud, one after the other.
Adjectives in normal position:
The sturdy old cabin survived the hurricane.
Appositive adjectives following the noun:
The cabin, old but sturdy, survived the hurricane.
Appositive adjectives before the determiner:
Old but sturdy, the cabin survived the hurricane.
In the second and third sentences, the placement and punctuation of old but sturdy lead you to place a stress on both appositive adjectives that they do not get in the first sentence… The placement and punctuation of the adjectives focus special attention on the contrast. This is partly because the information is not there primarily to identify the noun. If the adjectives for cabin were old and red-The old red cabin survived the hurricane-we would not think of putting old and red in the appositive position. They describe, they modify, but they do not suggest the same idea as old but sturdy. Appositive adjectives typically suggest a relation between information found in a sentence and information carried by the adjectives themselves.
Appositive adjectives hardly ever appear singly… When they do, they are almost always modified by a prepositional phrase."
(Michael Kischner and Edith Wolin, Writers' Choices: Grammar to Improve Style. Harcourt, 2002)
A Loose Construction
"The Appositive Adjective. When an adjective is loosely joined, almost as an afterthought, to a substantive which has a separate existence in the mind, the construction is called appositive. It is the loosest of all constructions, as is shown by the fact that it is usually set off by commas. It resembles the noun in apposition as far as any adjective resembles a noun; i.e., it assumes a single attribute, while a noun assumes a group of attributes large enough to imply a partial identity. Example: All sizes, large and small, are sold here."
(Irene M. Mead, The English Language and Its Grammar. Silver, Burdett and Company, 1896)