Avoid Long Phrases Separating Subject from Predicate

Subject … Predicate … Appositive …

For those of you who are already cringing at the thought of an entire article focused on Grammar 101, take a deep breath and relax. This isn’t about grammar so much as good writing that allows readers to more easily engage, and thus enjoy, what you’ve crafted as an author of fiction or nonfiction.

With that out of the way, let’s glance at the basics we need to keep in mind. The subject of a sentence tells us who or what the sentence is about. The predicate tells us something about the subject—what the subject is or does.

Easy enough so far, right? You put a subject (noun) and predicate (verb) together, and you have yourself a sentence.

Then come all the bells and whistles that can help us further see and understand the word picture you’re painting for us: adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, appositives, etc. It’s all there for you to use in your wordsmithery. The key is knowing the best way to transcribe into words what you have in your heart to share with the world. And when you veer off track a bit, that’s when an editor can come alongside you to show you the way to clearer, more precise writing.

Case in point: I recently worked on a novel in which the author had a habit of using long appositives that really interrupted the flow of his incredible story—an action-adventure tale that had me so engaged that I rarely ever looked at my clock to see how my day was progressing.

The author has solid writing skills and understands how to tell a good story in regard to plotting, pacing, and the like. But, for as fast-paced as his story was, I found myself tripping over all the loooong appositives he liked to insert.

Okay, so what’s an appositive? Since I’m a book editor and I often refer to it, I’ll let the Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition define appositive for us:

An appositive noun or noun phrase is one that immediately follows another noun or noun phrase in order to define or further identify it {George Washington, our first president, was born in Virginia} (our first president is an appositive of the proper noun George Washington).

—from CMOS 5.21

An appositive could also come at the beginning of a sentence, right before its “sister” noun (the subject), or at the end, right after the sister noun (likely not the subject in such a construction). I’m focusing on the appositives that “interrupt” a sentence, as in the example from CMOS above.

Nothing wrong with using any type of appositive, of course, as an appositive can help us learn more about the noun in question. The problem comes when an interruptive appositive get so long that a reader forgets the subject by the time he or she gets to the predicate.

Some examples:

Jason, the team leader ever since he’d landed the multimillion-dollar contract and higher-ups subsequently took note, demanded that the next meeting would be at 9:30 two days from now.               

The broad, a vivacious brunette with pale blue eyes that seemed to look through anyone who dared stare too long in her direction, sauntered her way into the hotel lobby as though she owned the joint.

Rex, a German shepherd who had seen his share of combat operations in the Middle East during the battalion’s last deployment, didn’t come home the dog he’d been when they’d left all those months ago.

Not really anything wrong with any of these sentences in the most technical sense of grammatically sound writing. But it almost feels as though we’re reading a book in between each sentence’s subject and predicate, doesn’t it?

So, in the next part of this post, we’ll take a closer look at these examples and then explore solutions to such negative appositives.