Parenthetical Remarks

rogersgeorge on September 25th, 2016

Parenthesis comes from a Greek word meaning “put next to but inside.” (Okay, Greek geeks, παρεντιθημι) In English, we have several levels of parenthetical remarks, depending on how much emphasis we want to give the remark. [I have a Greek friend, who saw this and said it means “in between.”]

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.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

More about adjectives

rogersgeorge on December 10th, 2011

The last post addressed single-word adjectives, but adjectives can be a little more complicated than that.

For one thing, you can use nouns as adjectives. This is called an attributive construction, and in some circles it’s considered bad form. I’m not sure why—perhaps when you have a perfectly good related adjective lying about. I deliberately used a noun as an adjective in the last post, and you didn’t even notice, did you? (The word is “literature,” as in “literature book.”)

The other thing is that you can also have adjective phrases and clauses. (Remember—a clause has a verb in it; a phrase does not.) Adjectival phrases and clauses generally go after the word they refer to. Hence the literature book that my teacher assigned mentioned in the last post. It’s a good idea to keep your phrases and clauses together, too. Here’s an example of not doing so. It’s from the book

Better than a picture of St. Thomas, I think

The sentence makes fairly good sense, but look at it more closely. What does “to mine” go with? It goes with “similar.” And “path”? “Path” is the direct object—goes with “traveled.” In fact, the article is where it belongs, right after the verb and right before where “path” should be. Untangled, the sentence looks like this:

It turns out that he was a physicist who had traveled a path similar to mine, and he helped me see that doubt is part of the faith journey.

The original sentence was spoken, not written, and the speaker’s desire to emphasize similarity led him to move the word forward in the sentence. Perfectly normal use of emphasis. But when you write, don’t interrupt your phrases. They’ll come out clearer.

Watch where you put things!

rogersgeorge on July 20th, 2011

The rule of thumb in English is that modifiers go next to what they modify. Try not to put anything in between. Here’s an example of doing it wrong:

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, lauding his “extraordinary heroism” during a solemn White House ceremony Tuesday that marked just the second time since Vietnam that the honor was bestowed to a living recipient.

This is from a recent news article in the Los Angeles Times. Let’s follow our rule. When did this soldier’s extraordinary heroism take place? The sentence says it took place during a White House ceremony! (Insert presidential political joke here.) Let’s rewrite the sentence so it doesn’t cause unintended humor:

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry during a solemn White House ceremony Tuesday, lauding his “extraordinary heroism”  that marked just the second time since Vietnam that the honor was bestowed to a living recipient.

It’s still not quite right. What does that final clause, about being the second time, go with? It goes with the awarding, way up at the front of the sentence. There’s no graceful way to put this clause up there, So we make a new sentence. Rule of thumb number two: It’s okay to use two simple sentences instead of one long, complicated, ungraceful one.

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, lauding his “extraordinary heroism” during a solemn White House ceremony Tuesday. The award marked just the second time since Vietnam that the honor was bestowed to a living recipient.

photo copyright (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

There. Sentences that befit a sitting president and a war hero, regardless of your politics.