Fixing Apposition Fumbles

The English language leaves plenty of room for communication fumbles, but one of the most hilarious happens with apposition. Apposition, the placement of a second term or phrase after a first to elaborate on the nature of that first term or phrase, is an invaluable tool – but when you don’t treat it with care, it will come back to bite you.

Example the First

For this example, let’s pretend I’m one of those (idiotic) people who don’t use the Oxford comma. And let’s pretend I have a sense of humor, and thus am telling a joke. The joke starts like this:

The lady walked into a bar, followed closely by a duck, a psychopath and a vegetarian.

There are two excellent ways to interpret this. First, a woman walked into a bar, then a duck, a psychopath, and vegetarian followed her in. Second (and I absolutely prefer this one), a woman is followed into a bar by a duck who is a psychopath and a vegetarian (like Hitler!).

Image courtesy of Shenziholic
(I am so happy that this image exists!)

But let’s assume that what we really meant was that a group of four (woman, duck, psychopath, vegetarian) all came into a bar. How would we fix the ambiguity? Well, the first and most obvious way is to use the Oxford comma (so add one more reason to the list!). However, you could also re-cast the sentence as “A woman, a duck, a psychopath and a vegetarian walked into a bar.” The structure of the sentence makes the lack of apposition clear (there would be a comma after “vegetarian” if we were going for apposition, after all).

By the way, now that I’ve started the joke, I’m ever-so-curious how to ends. Leave your punchline in the comments section below for a chance to win my favorite type of cookie, chocolate chip and giant. (I’ll work on how I’ll locate that giant later.)

Example the Second

Alas, the Oxford comma can’t save us from all our apposition woes! For this example, let’s create a fake interview.

Interviewer: Your art here is certainly revolutionary! What would you say inspires you?
Artist: I’d have to say it’s my girlfriend, the blue whale, and Ghandi.

Wait just a smidge: did he just call his girlfriend “the blue whale”? Oh, he’s gonna get it when he gets home, I tell you what! So, how can we fix this? Well, one solution is to use the semicolon.

 Artist: I’d have to say it’s my girlfriend; the blue whale; and Ghandi.

As a “super comma,” the semicolon is a savior in situations like this – although it admittedly looks a touch odd on the page to your standard (publicly educated) readers. So we could re-cast the sentence as follows:

Artist: I’d have to say it’s my girlfriend, blue whales, and Ghandi.

The singular-plural non-match can redeem the sentence, lending clarity and getting the same point across. Or we could order it as “Ghandi, my girlfriend, and the blue whale,” which would give us a gender mis-match that clarifies the sentence for all but the truly imaginative. Or we could do this:

Artist: I’d have to say it’s three things: my girlfriend, the blue whale, and Ghandi.

The previous segment of the sentence does all our clarification work for us! Bravo.

Example the Third

Now I’ll use the classic apposition example of a book dedication.

To my dad, the Pope, and the inventor of Swiss cheese.

While this book dedication may have been attempting to pay homage to the Pope, it instead made quite a major claim about a biological relationship to him! This one actually gets even more hilarious if you remove the Oxford comma:

To my dad, the Pope and the inventor of Swiss cheese.

What an accomplished parent! Both the Pope and the inventor of Swiss cheese? I daresay, I’m impressed. Again, however, we have some easy fixes. We can go the re-cast route mentioned above:

To the inventor of Swiss cheese, my dad, and the Pope.

But, oh no! leaves us with ambiguity (the “my dad” could be in apposition to the inventor). My preference here is to use the mighty tool of typography!

To my dad,
the Pope,
and the inventor of Swiss Cheese.

Since this is a book dedication, this sort of layout works perfectly well and an intuitive “one item per line” rule makes the division apparent.


Apposition fumbles can happen in the most hilarious ways. I’m tempted to say “leave them,” because then I’d get a good chuckle, but it’s probably best if you fix them up. Apposition fumbles can almost always be fixed with minimal effort by using one of the following tools: the Oxford comma, the semicolon (as a “super comma”), a re-cast of the sentence (re-sorting the list, rephrasing to an obvious mismatch [plural/singular, masculine/feminine], adding an introductory phrase that declares the number of items, etc.), or typography.