Writer's tool kit

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Suppose you have a daughter called Jill, and you want to introduce her to your boss. What do you say? Most probably, something like:

"This is my daughter Jill." Nice and simple, but very effective grammar.

Your boss receives two important bits of information in the shortest possible time: that she's your daughter and that she's called Jill.

This grammatical pattern is called "apposition", and the rule is delightfully easy: you can make two nouns or noun phrases refer to the same person or thing simply by putting them next to each other.

Here are examples to help you see that you actually know apposition well, and probably use it many times a day. The nouns in apposition are highlighted by underlining for the first and italics for the second.

lThe film "Citizen Kane" is a classic.

lThe word "accommodate" is hard to spell.

lMy friend Bill Smith lives in Birmingham.

lThe winner of this year's prize, Charles Brown, comes from London.

lThis morning I had a nice surprise - a bouquet of roses.

But don't take apposition for granted. Its use is a sign of maturity in young writers, and the more mature, the more complex the apposition. Here's a very competent KS2 writer putting two simple appositions into one sentence: "Your child will be travelling by coach and will be accompanied by Mrs Medway the class teacher and her assistant Miss Skinner."

And here's an equally impressive KS3 writer who's still experimenting with more ambitious appositions:"By using the word 'moody' to describe the lake she conjures up dark colours and images of the lake, the sort of place you could imagine contains a mysterious creature."

Does the second apposition work here? We'll leave you to decide.

Apposition is worth exploring as an important writing tool. One interesting place to look for examples is in the press, because newspapers have invented their own variation: "Prime Minister Tony Blair held a press conference." Here the first part is a cut-down noun phrase. "Prime Minister" normally needs a determiner, such as "a" or "the": you wouldn't write "Prime Minister held a press conference". In these examples the first half of the apposition is more like a title (Mr, Dr, Prof, and so on).

Because newspapers are keen to compress information they make heavy use of apposition, often as a convenient way of labelling people: "Manager Glen Hoddle believes they will qualify." "Japanese star Kazuyuki Toda is the only signing this season."

So if we want our students to write in a range of styles, from the formal essay ("obsessive hero Macbeth") to a newspaper report ("Secretary of State Charles Clarke") we should teach them about apposition - a key part of the writer's toolkit.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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