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.

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A Typographic Subtlety

rogersgeorge on August 5th, 2016

We have five horizontal lines in English writing. I’m not going to write about the strikeout and the underscore today. The other three are the hyphen, the N-dash, and the M-dash. I’ll skip the hyphen, too, except to say that you shouldn’t use it in place of the two dashes. Unless you’re using a typewriter, where you don’t have a choice.

The N-dash shows a range such as the opening and closing times of a store. 5:00–9:00 for example. An N-dash is the width of a capital N.

The M-dash (width of a capital M) indicates a break of some kind. An interruption, change of thought, or to emphasize a parenthetical idea.

The rules permit you to use an N-dash with spaces instead of an M-dash. But don’t.

Never use spaces around an M-dash—and that leads to my quoted passage. Until today I had never seen anyone put spaces with an M-dash.

In a discovery that raises fundamental questions about human behavior, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found that the immune system directly affects — and even controls — our social behavior, such as our desire to interact with others.

This is from an article in a Kurzweil newsletter. Those are M-dashes, and they shouldn’t have spaces around them. They do correctly emphasize the parenthetical remark, though.

Did I forget any rules about dashes? Tell me in the comments.

Count your commas!

rogersgeorge on February 20th, 2014

Commas are a way of separating sentence content from the rest of the sentence. You may not separate a subject from its verb. You can do other things with a single comma, though. As single comma, usually after the first word in the sentence, can be direct address. That’s when you name the person or thing you are speaking to. (Charlie, get out of bed!) It can also separate something parenthetical, such as a conditional clause. (If you don’t get out of bed now, you’re going to miss the bus!) A single comma can also separate something called an appositive. An appositive is renaming something; it’s equivalent to an equals sign. Here’s an example of that from a recent Bizarro comic. Read the apron. I confess I’m not much into rock and roll, so I just barely know that “Kiss” is the guy’s name. Or something.

What about two commas? The rule in writing is that you don’t separate a subject from its verb with a comma. But you may use two commas. Two commas enclose a parenthetical remark. Since it’s parenthetical, it doesn’t count as part of the sentence. Let’s modify the above:

Kiss, the cook, sports a rather unconventional appearance.

You can take out “the cook” and you still have the main sentence. Do not say, “Kiss, the cook looks rather unconventional,” unless you’re talking to Mr. Kiss about a cook.

A little more about parenthetical remarks: You can make them three ways. I already mentioned commas. Use commas for a minor aside. Use parentheses (which I use rather often in my writing) for remarks that are somewhat off topic. Finally, use M-dashes—very handy to know how to use—to emphasize the importance of the remark. You make a M-dash by holding down the Alt key while you type 0151 on the numeric keypad. Mac users, you’re on your own, and some word processors have their own way of making them. I’ll belabor the point:

Kiss (did you know he can cook?) is pretty good with a barbecue grill. Kiss—he is actually a very good cook—served up some excellent spare ribs.

A final parenthetical remark: You really should kiss the cook.