3 Parenthetical Punctuation Puzzles

By Mark Nichol

1. “Thanks to technology, we can have independence, relative independence, from the harsh qualities of the real world on a day-to-day basis.”

This sentence’s punctuation — a series of three commas — implies a flat progression of ideas without modulation. But the writer, after the fact, modifies the absolute word independence with the qualifying term relative, and should signal this slight case of backpedaling by marking the phrase “relative independence” as an interjection: “Thanks to technology, we can have independence — relative independence — from the harsh qualities of the real world on a day-to-day basis.”

2. “You, yes you, can say you were there for the advent of the Apple iPod.”

The writer almost immediately interrupts the sentence to emphasize the importance of the reader’s qualification to make the claim. The interruption, however, is weak because it is accomplished with a pair of quotidian commas rather than two dashing dashes.

Also, note that if the writer had correctly punctuated the parenthetical phrase (“yes, you”), the result would be a confusing sequence of three commas (“You, yes, you, can say . . .”), which would further diminish the impact of the interruption. The correct treatment is “You — yes, you — can say you were there for the advent of the Apple iPod.” (The third parenthetical option, to place “yes, you” in parentheses, is the equivalent of whispering the phrase, which is not the connotation the writer intends.)

3. “The potato, and for that matter ginger root, are not true roots, but underground stems.”

This sentence is a more complicated variation of the one in the previous example — complicated, because the interjection (“and for that matter ginger root”) itself includes a parenthetical phrase that the author has erred in not setting off with punctuation: “For that matter” is an interjection within the phrase “and ginger root.”

The larger interjection should be set off by em dashes, though parentheses are also correct; commas will suffice for the one within: “The potato — and, for that matter, ginger root — is not a true root, but an underground stem.” (Note, too, that I altered the sentence’s plural construction to a singular one: Factually, ginger root is also an underground stem rather than a true root, but in the sentence as it is structured, because ginger root is within a parenthetical phrase, is and the nouns root and stem refer only to potato.)

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9 Responses to “3 Parenthetical Punctuation Puzzles”

  • S Walthew

    I take exception to the third example. There is nothing that requires a parenthetical in it. It is perfectly proper to write, “The potato and, for that matter, ginger root are not true roots, but underground stems.” The use of the M dash has gotten out of hand and the correction of this sentence with them is a good example. There is nothing parenthetically necessary about a plural subject of potato and ginger root.

  • Laura

    I have a semi-related question. My understanding regarding the use of em dashes is that there is no space between the words and the dash. This appears–as I have illustrated here–as an instruction in the Chicago Manual of Style. I think if have seen this rule elswhere, but I seem to be one of few who omits the extra spaces.

    Are you aware of rules that state otherwise, that a space should occur on either side of the dash?

  • Laura

    I notice that I typed two hypens for an em dash, and they converted back to one hyphen–not my intention!

  • Sally

    “…a pair of quotidian commas rather than two dashing dashes.”

    Take a bow, Mark, not only for your astonishing alliteration, but also for your tremendous turn of phrase!

  • Mark Nichol

    S Walthew:

    In the context of the content from which this example was taken, I felt that the em dashes were justified because ginger root had not yet been introduced to the discussion and the inclusion of the fact was worthy of an interjection.

  • Mark Nichol

    Laura:

    In justified type, in which both margins are aligned, em dashes are generally set with no preceding or following spaces. However, in right-ragged type, in which the type continues until there is no room on the line for another word and the right margin is therefore irregular, em dashes are often bracketed by letter spaces so that the opening dash, because it is not directly attached to a word, will not unduly extend a line.

    And if you look closely at what appeared on this page in place of your double hyphen and compare it to the hyphen in semi-related (which, by the way, is unnecessary), you’ll notice that it’s slightly longer; it’s an en dash, which is often used in place of an em dash in online typography.

  • -tom-

    If you have some time to spare:
    Could you write an article about em-dashes, en-dashes, hyphens and what have you? They must be a typical US phenomenon: I learnt my English at secondary school in the Netherlands from a British-English oriented teacher, and – although I think we covered all corners of British grammar – there was never any mention of different dashes. Also during my studies to become a translator / interpreter, all horizontal lines hovering above the base line, were just ‘hypens’ to me.
    Regards

  • Mark Nichol

    Tom:

    Search the site for “em dashes”; there are several posts about the topic.

  • Amanda Socci

    Excellent examples of poor grammatical contruction, detailed explanations, and perfect rewrites. This blog post deserves an A+. Now, if we can just get the thousands of poorly written blogs to subscribe to your feed, perhaps our poor, weary eyes will be refreshed with beautiful grammar.

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