Appositives

So, as I mentioned in a post the other day, I recently attended a brief workshop on AI, with emphasis on what it can do for students and – as you might imagine – on what students should not do with it. I’ll be attending another workshop soon, this one with emphasis, I’m pretty sure from the promotional materials, on how great a tool AI will be for teaching! students! critical! thinking! skills.

If you guess that maybe I have doubts, this is true. Saying “The student can use AI to generate ideas!” or “AI can help a student organize a paper!” sounds a lot like saying, “So they don’t have to use their own brain, how neat!”

Also, there is this new study: ChatGPT linked to declining academic performance and memory loss in new study, and while my first reaction is, you guessed it, “Really? Can I see your methodology?”, my second reaction is, “Of course, what else would you expect?”

I am not actually viciously opposed to all possible use of AI, by the way, in case you might have gotten that impression. I hear it’s good for rapidly handling a mass of data, and no doubt that’s useful in many contexts. I’m horrified by AI hallucinations in medical diagnoses and advice, however. Also, the idea of getting AI to generate ideas so you don’t have to go to all the trouble of generating your very own ideas sounds, how shall I put this, somewhat less than useful, particularly as – from what we’ve seen in AI trying to generate fiction – you’re likely to get super-clichéd garbage ideas mixed with falsehoods.

However, my actual point here is: one comment made at the recent workshop is that ChatGPT in particular is very fond of appositives; so much so that this is one feature by which its generated text can be recognized.

I hadn’t noticed this.

What (you may be asking) is an appositive? If you don’t quite recollect the term, which in fact I didn’t, I’ll give a brief rule-of-thumb definition after a series of examples. And where am I getting these examples? From the chapter on appositives in Virginia Tufte’s book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, where she offers and discusses many examples. Here are a few:

***

Over the last decade William Langewiesche has been fascinated by the modern-day frontier – those wild places that stubbornly defy all efforts at control.  – Philbrick, “Waterworld.”

The Antigua that I knew, the Antigua in which I grew up, is not the Antigua you, a tourist, would see now. – Kincaid, A Small Place.

He lumbered into the city room, a big guy in his middle twenties, wearing a suit too dark for the season, and the disconsolate expression of a hunter who has seen nothing but warblers all day.  – Thurber, “Newspaperman.”

One of the great poets, Milton is also one of the least read. – Untermeyer, The Lives of the Poets.

Mr. Somerville – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English.  – Churchill, A Roving Commission.

Modern houseboats being what they are – sinfully luxurious is what they are – it ought to be enough to run them lazily around back rivers and bayous. The last thing anybody needs is a national championship houseboat race. – Whall, “A House is Not a Hotrod.”

They helped create a special memory of my father – my gossamer memories suddenly given vivid shape and form and color.  – Kunhardt, My Father’s Country

***

Okay, you see what all those sentences include? They include a phrase that renames, redefines, or expands on a noun or noun phrase. It’s the renaming or redefining that makes an appositive. This is the short form of the definition, remember. I don’t actually care a lot about the details because life is short and I’m not planning to teach a class on syntax and style any time soon. (Though that might be neat.) Quick rule of thumb, therefore: an appositive renames, redefines, or expands on a noun or noun phrase. They’re set off with commas, with dashes, with colons, or sometimes they’re set as fragments after the main sentence. They usually, but not always, come after the noun or noun phrase. Here are all those sentences again, this time with the appositives bolded:

***

Over the last decade William Langewiesche has been fascinated by the modern-day frontier – those wild places that stubbornly defy all efforts at control. – The appositive here is defining “modern-day frontier.”

The Antigua that I knew, the Antigua in which I grew up, is not the Antigua you, a tourist, would see now. – The appositive is redefining Antigua; repetition is common in appositives.

He lumbered into the city room, a big guy in his middle twenties, wearing a suit too dark for the season, and the disconsolate expression of a hunter who has seen nothing but warblers all day. – The appositive is expanding on “he,” a very boring noun, so that the appositive is doing all the heavy lifting.

One of the great poets, Milton is also one of the least read. – An inverted appositive, coming before the noun on which it expands.

Mr. Somerville – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English. Expanding on the noun.

Modern houseboats being what they are – sinfully luxurious is what they are – it ought to be enough to run them lazily around back rivers and bayous. The last thing anybody needs is a national championship houseboat race. – Delightfully expands on the noun phrase, and if I were teaching a class on syntax and style, I would use this sentence, because it is great.

They helped create a special memory of my father – my gossamer memories suddenly given vivid shape and form and color. – Expands on the noun phrase “special memory.”

***

Okay, so after this comment at the workshop about appositives, I told ChatGPT to generate a student essay on an excruciatingly common topic. Basically every student taking English Comp I thinks this would be a great original idea for an essay.

Please write a thousand-word essay on the impact of modern technology on student performance in the classroom.

If you happen to be taking English Comp I or if you know a student who is, please please please do not write, or allow anyone you know to write, an English composition essay on this or any similar topic. I promise you, the instructor has seen ten thousand iterations and is deeply bored with every possible variation on this theme.

I will spare you the thousand-word essay. It’s pretty obviously generated, but the interesting thing, given the workshop, is that having read the whole thing pretty carefully myself, I see … no appositives at all.

Yet this claim about appositives is definitely made here and there. Here, for example:

I’m going back to my generated essay. I’m still not seeing any appositives. None. I’m tempted to paste it in below so you can see what you think, but a boring thousand-word essay about this extremely boring topic, I mean, if you want to see it, let me know and I’ll paste it into a comment, but otherwise, no.

I will pull out one sentence, however:

Educators can promote digital literacy skills by incorporating media literacy and information literacy into the curriculum, teaching students how to critically evaluate online information and navigate digital resources responsibly.

Emphasis mine. Honestly, I can’t even be bothered to roll my eyes.

Obviously integrating text generators into the classroom will not encourage critical thinking. I can think of assignments that would actually do that, such as having students generate an essay on a topic where they are a genuine expert and then analyze the generated essay for falsity and misleading statements. Lots of students are experts in something or other. Use that. Or maybe have the students deliberately try to get the text generator to spit out something they know is false. Or generate fake essays using two different text generators, or the same one twice, and compare style and accuracy. Or have each student both write AND generate an essay, then hand both to a different student, and have each student try to figure out which essay is the real thing and which isn’t. Or have the students pick a particular book they like, summarize it, then try to get an AI text generator to write something similar, and analyze the differences between the real thing and the fake. Then discuss the results, maybe assign something like a written explanation of the differences between human-generated and AI-generated text.

My very strong expectation is that practically no teachers will assign anything like the above. No, teachers will wave their hands and chant “We’re teaching critical thinking skills!” and then they will either turn a blind eye to plagiarism from text generators or else they will try to prevent plagiarism, neither of which will have anything to do with teaching critical thinking.

Well, we’ll see.

Meanwhile, now I bet you’ll be noticing appositives for a while. I know I will be!

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6 thoughts on “Appositives”

  1. The essays my brother wrote for English Comp were not even remotely AI generated. Of course, this was several years ago. He wrote a persuasive essay on cookies, an angry diatribe on the poor design of some campus doors (an actual hazard, and his professor told him to turn that essay in to the college in the hopes that they’d reconsider the design), and an essay on vacuum zeppelins and their uses. All of the above were hilarious and creative (I fixed the grammar, mostly; he’s an engineer, not a writer). I wish more students were so creative with their topics, but alas, the allure of the easy over the good too often wins when a student’s strapped for time.

  2. One of the things that they saw at darpa was that over reliance on technology can atrophy important skills. Soldiers are much worse at land navigation courses since the advent of gps. Someone was trying to pitch some hi tech device for assisting in sandbox map-making, and it was shot down because then if they lost power they wouldn’t remember how to just draw their map in the dirt/sand anymore.

  3. EC, a persuasive essay on cookies? And yes, all of those sound MUCH BETTER than yet another essay on, heaven help us, the impact of cell phones on student attention in the classroom, or whatever.

    SarahZ, I’m laughing and rolling my eyes at the same time.

  4. I believe his thesis was that cookies are unfairly vilified by weight-loss advocates, and that the emotional support of coming home to a warm cookie and a glass of milk far outweighed the potential weight gain, provided the cookies were a treat and not a regular indulgence . . . or something. It’s been several years since I read it, but it was genuinely funny.

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