the German friar Martin Luther


Senior Member
Mandarin / the Shanghai Dialect

Little did the German friar Martin Luther suspect, when he nailed his protests against Catholic doctrines to the door of Wittenberg’s cathedral in 1517, that he was shaping the destiny of a yet unknown nation.”

From “The American Pageant” by Thomas A. Bailey

The whole chapter can be read at

I have a hard time understanding the part in bold.

Does it read “ (the German friar) Martin Luther”( the friar) or does it read “ the (German friar) Martin Luther” (the Martin Luther)? Why is there no comma before and after Martin Luther (Little did the German friar, Martin Luther, suspect,)?
  • lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It’s a normal appositive construction. It works in the same way as “the actor Johnny Depp” or “my brother Simon”.

    Commas are not needed in your example, but they would be needed if the name and description were the other way round:

    Martin Luther, a German friar, did not suspect…
    As you can no doubt tell, the original version impies that readers already know who Luther is, whereas the above version implies that they don’t.
    Last edited:

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    You're over-thinking this. His name is Martin Luther; he was a German friar. In correct English we might expect commas around his name but he's so well-known there's no real need, and in any case names are often not set apart with commas (it's a name in apposition). And that would make four commas in a sentence, which is a little heavy.

    "The Martin Luther" is impossible in this context.


    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    Usually an appositive phrase can be removed without changing the overall sense of the sentence. That's not the case here. But "Little did Martin Luther, a/the German friar, think ... " is an arrangement which would support a phrase in apposition. The writer has chosen to use 'German friar' adjectively.
    It seems I see it a little differently from others.

    (I've noticed lots of quirks in the style of this book, judging from the quotes.)
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    English - England
    I would say that appositives can be seen as working like relative clauses in the sense that they’re either restrictive or non-restrictive, and punctuation is only needed with the latter.
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