Using appositives; 'fewer' vs. 'less'
Published: August 3, 2010
Q: When I start a story, I start in the middle of the action as hundreds of advice books suggest, but the sentences still seem off. Here’s a sample: “Jeff, her husband, was picking up the children. Hayden Elementary, the school Jeff and Elise attended as children, was only four blocks away but Jeff still walked them home every day.” What’s the problem?
Those little phrases you’re tucking into your sentences are called appositives. This is when two noun phrases appear next to each other and refer to the same thing. Let’s look at the first sentence:
Jeff, her husband, was picking up the children.
Both “Jeff” and “her husband” refer to the same person. Your second sentence also has an appositive:
Hayden Elementary, the school Jeff and Elise attended as children, was only four blocks away but Jeff still walked them home every day.
“Hayden Elementary” and “the school Jeff and Elise attended as children” refer to the same school. Appositives usually include additional information about the noun, so they can be important. Hayden Elementary, for example, isn’t just the school their children attend. It’s a place Jeff and Elise also spent quite a bit of time. They have a history with this school.
Sometimes appositives are a necessary and eloquent way to communicate information. In the novel Empire Falls, Richard Russo introduces Miles Roby this way:
Of course, nothing prevented a person from looking up Empire Avenue in the other direction, but Miles Roby, the proprietor of the restaurant—and its eventual owner, he hoped—had long noted that his customers rarely did.
The appositive lets the reader know Miles is the proprietor of the restaurant, but it also conveys his desire. He wants to own it. Appositives can even add rich description.
Sometimes appositives sound clunky. Authors might use too many in an effort to say as much as they can quickly. Appositives might state or explain too plainly or they might interject information that doesn’t quite fit with the purpose of the sentence. For example, in the novel Main Street Sinclair Lewis might have introduced Carol Milford with an appositive:
On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, Carol Milford, a student from Blodgett College, stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.
The appositive—“a student from Blodgett College”—wrenches the reader away from the image of this young woman on the hill. Instead, Lewis suggests details about Carol Milford by introducing her this way:
On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky ... She was meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor had started at the new coiffure which concealed her ears.
The details that define Carol Milford grow naturally out of the action and the reader learns much more about her role as a student.
Still, you don’t always have to ditch the appositive to create memorable prose. Just take a look at the opening of Vladimir Nobakov’s Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
Q: I always use the word “less,” but I wonder if I should be using “fewer.” What’s the difference?
“Less” and “fewer” have the same meaning, but aren’t necessarily interchangeable. Use “fewer” with things you can count:
I will plant fewer marigolds this year.
She has fewer items in her basket.
“Less” is used with things that cannot be counted individually. These quantities must be measured or are considered a whole:
I have less clutter on my desk today.
She has less than a half a gallon of milk.
Some nouns are clearly countable (marigolds, items, pens and leaves) and others are clearly uncountable (clutter, milk, energy and food). However, not all nouns behave the same way in every circumstance. For example, “soup” is countable if it’s doled out in individual bowls:
Joan, honey, not all the guests are ready to eat. Bring fewer soups next time.
(She means Joan should bring fewer bowls of soup, but it’s common to shorten in this way.) On the other hand, soup isn’t countable when talking about one pot that doesn’t need to be so large:
Next time, we’ll make less soup.
Like many rules, this one also has an exception. Use “less” when describing distance, money or time.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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