Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 43 Punctuating Prepositional and Appositive Phrases (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)

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Wow! That’s a mouthful, eh? I guess we’d better start with definitions before we talk about punctuation.

A prepositional phrase starts with a preposition. Prepositions are words that indicate location—usually in the physical world, but they can also show location in time. Some common prepositions are in, on, behind, at, during, concerning, despite, etc. (For a complete list, see http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/preposition.htm) A prepositional phrase looks like this:

  • in the morning

  • behind the dumpster

  • among the pink and blue summer wildflowers

Prepositional phrases can start a sentence. When do you need a comma then? When the phrase contains five or more words. If it contains four or fewer words, no comma is necessary, but it may be added for emphasis, if desired, or if it’s needed for clarity. (Of course, Microsoft Word can’t count, so it says you need a comma after all prepositional phrases.)

  • In the morning (end of phrase) the cat ate his breakfast.

  • On the table (end of phrase) a bottle of orange juice rested, saving its Vitamin C for the householder’s consumption.

  • In this time of economic hardship, increasing commodity prices, and stagnant housing values (end of phrase, comma needed), many homeowners are seeking to downsize.

  • Before the snow flurry (end of phrase, but confusion with no comma), birds sought shelter.

When a prepositional clause occurs at the end of a sentence, no comma is needed:

  • The cat ate his breakfast in the morning.

  • A bottle of orange juice rested on the table, saving its Vitamin C for the householder’s consumption.

  • Many homeowners are seeking to downsize in this time of economic hardship, increasing commodity prices, and stagnant housing values.

Sometimes a prepositional clause may be inserted in the wrong place, giving incorrect information about what is happening. Watch out for these!

  • The neighbors swam for two hours after lunch in my pool.

This sounds like the neighbors swam after eating lunch in the pool, which is not correct. The clauses need to be in the right order, and a comma is necessary for clarity:

  • After lunch, the neighbors swam for two hours in my pool.

Multiple prepositional phrases can occur in one sentence. In this example taken from http://grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/preppharrange.htm, you can see how awkward this is:

  • On a rickety stool in one corner of the crowded honky tonk, the folk singer sits playing lonesome songs on his battered old guitar about warm beer, cold women, and long nights on the road.

When you’ve written a long sentence like this, it’s best to break it up:

  • On a rickety stool in one corner of the crowded honky tonk, the folk singer sits hunched over his battered old guitar. He plays lonesome songs about warm beer, cold women, and long nights on the road.

Now onto appositives!

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames another noun right beside it. The appositive can be a short or long combination of words, and is sometimes a proper noun (name). These examples show different sizes of appositives in different locations of a sentence. An appositive that is NOT necessary to the sentence is always set off by punctuation of some sort (commas, a dash, a colon, a semicolon, or an ellipsis).

  • The insect, a beetle, scurried across the kitchen floor.

  • The insect scurried across the kitchen floor—a beetle that had spied the dog food bowl.

  • The insect, a huge beetle with feathery antennas, scurried across the kitchen floor.

  • A hot-tempered hockey player, Charles charged the referee and tried to crack the poor man’s skull with his stick.

  • Charles, a hot-tempered hockey player, charged the referee and tried to crack the poor man’s skull with his stick.

  • The crowd cheered for Charles, a hot-tempered hockey player who charged the referee and tried to crack the poor man’s skull with his stick.

If the appositive is a descriptive list following the noun, you use a colon to set off the list:

  • The crowd cheered for Charles: hot-tempered, a crowd favorite, a fine player, and, some said, a bully.

Appositives that are necessary for clarity are not punctuated.

  • My wife Sally will not be attending VERSUS Sally, my wife, will not be attending.

  • CEO Paula Scranton will be on hand to answer questions VERSUS Paula Scranton, CEO, will be on hand to answer questions.

  • My little sister Willow will walk you down the aisle VERSUS Willow, my little sister, will walk you down the aisle.

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

OwnerAdirondack Editing

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