Parenthetical Remarks

rogersgeorge on September 25th, 2016

Parenthesis comes from a Greek word meaning “put next to but inside.” (Okay, geeks, παρεντιθημι) In English, we have several levels of parenthetical remarks, depending on how much emphasis we want to give the remark.

Weakest is the nonrestrictive phrase. We identify this with commas, and the implication is that the remark is about equal to the main information, but it can be left out.

Clinton, who is the first female presidential candidate from a major party, has pneumonia.
Mr. Jones, the farmer, favors weed-free gardens.

That first sentence has a nonrestrictive clause, not phrase, but you get the idea. (Take out “who is” and you get a phrase.) You can take out the stuff between the commas and you still get a complete, reasonable sentence. The information between the commas is parenthetical. By the way, if you take out the commas, the content is restrictive, necessary. So if you say mister Jones the farmer favors weed-free gardens, you imply that there are one or more other misters Jones who aren’t farmers, and you need to restrict your meaning to the one who is a farmer.

Then you have parentheses. Remarks inside (between?) parentheses are asides that are less important than the flow of the rest of the sentence.

Professor Yang said his team cleaned the crown’s fragile copper wires and restored 13 flower decorations done in gilded (gold-covered) bronze wires.
The beings made from grey clay were not life-sized, as in Tussaud’s wax museum, but very much smaller. They stood at the most thirty centimetres (12 inches) tall—I’ve measured them.

Finally, you can separate parenthetical remarks from the rest of the sentence with M-dashes. Make an M-dash in most Windows applications by holding down the Alt key while you type 0151. Use M-dashes for asides you want to emphasize.

It’s encrusted with sea life—nature quickly colonizes all in its domain—yet many features are still intact on the deck of this World War II-era aircraft carrier.
After many more studies, with many thousands of participants—children and the elderly, students and professionals, healthy and ill—we can say with confidence that showing up and applying words to emotions is a tremendously helpful way to deal with stress, anxiety, and loss.

How about correctness? Might one type of remark be right and another wrong? Look at the parts I put into bold. Should the writer have used parentheses?

The battered, leaking ship was towed out to sea in 1951, exiting the Golden Gate to be scuttled, or intentionally sunk, about 30 miles offshore, near the Farallon Islands.
While there is a plethora of video file types, which consist of codecs and containers, choosing the right one doesn’t have to be complicated—but it certainly can be.

I think the choice of which to use depends on the intent of the writer. Of course you can always disagree with the writer’s choice, but it’s a matter of judgement, not correctness.

Your turn! Go out and write a few parenthetical remarks.

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