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  • Writer's pictureJames Bennetts


Updated: Aug 10, 2023

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NOTE: One of my pet peeves is pet peeves about language. Although I have my own gripes when it comes to grammar, I am in recovery. I gave up long ago berating people about the 'mistakes' they make. So sometimes I write a little rant about someone else's rant against a supposed grammatical mistake. This one has been under my skin for some time.

Some editors claim that an appositive must not precede the noun it stands in apposition to. A staffer at the New Yorker magazine, David Owen stands among them; or should I say “David Owen, a staffer at the New Yorker magazine, stands among them.” Last January, he wrote as much in the magazine, stating that “My problem with all such sentences,” meaning those leading with an appositive, “is that they seem to have been turned inside out: they start in one direction, then swerve in another.”

His objection sounds reasonable enough. Placing the appositive before the noun can cause some initial confusion for the reader. They could indeed easily assume that “A staffer” is the subject of a sentence that will lead to a predicate, only to be surprised by the real subject, in this case “David Owen”; a Bad Thing, as Owen calls it. But his objection misses an important point: Language is always on the move.

What was once objectionable—leading with an appositive---doesn’t forever remain objectionable. Two examples are worth noting. One is ending a sentence with a preposition, as I have done in the opening to this blog. Once considered a grammatical faux pas, it’s now endorsed by none other than Merriam Webster. Another is the rule against the split infinitive, rigorously enforced by those who wished to passionately remain loyal to a grammar rooted in a Latinist past. In both cases, English eventually shrugged off the dead weight of these arbitrary standards and moved on.

Language is like a river: constantly changing course. David Owen ought to know better than to try to hold it back. Eventually, like a river, language will find a way around his objection. It always does. He’ll only find himself cutoff and lost in some backwater of forgotten grammar rules, like a stick in the mud.

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