5 Types of Problems with Parenthetical Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

Introducing additional but nonessential information into a sentence complicates the reader’s task when punctuation is misused. Here are five sentences that illustrate various punctuation problems associated with creating parenthetical elements in a statement.

(Note that parenthetical, here and in other posts on this site, does not refer literally to the use of the punctuation marks called parentheses; it applies to the use of any punctuation to set off any amplifying or explanatory word, phrase, or sentence, such as this phrase you are reading right now, or “here and in other posts on this site.”)

1. Nextdoor, the popular neighborhood social-networking site that people use to share neighborly news too often reflects the racial biases and prejudices of its users.

When an appositive of a noun or a noun phrase—an appositive is a word or phrase equivalent in meaning to the noun—precedes or follows the noun, the description must be treated as a self-contained phrase bracketed by punctuation: “Nextdoor, the popular neighborhood social-networking site that people use to share neighborly news, too often reflects the racial biases and prejudices of its users.”

2. Six objects in the icy Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone at the far reaches of the solar system, appear to be influenced by an as-yet-undiscovered planet.

Here, the punctuation erroneously identifies “Twilight Zone at the far reaches of the solar system” as the appositive of “Kuiper Belt,” but only “Twilight Zone” serves that function; “at the far reaches of the solar system” is merely another parenthetical phrase, which must also be set off from the rest of the sentence: “Six objects in the icy Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, at the far reaches of the solar system, appear to be influenced by an as-yet-undiscovered planet.”

Better yet, diminish the interruption of the alternate name of the Kuiper Belt by using actually parentheses: “Six objects in the icy Kuiper Belt (also known as the Twilight Zone), at the far reaches of the solar system, appear to be influenced by an as-yet-undiscovered planet.” (Retain both commas bracketing “at the far reaches of the solar system.”)

3. He discovered one of these six objects more than a decade ago, Sedna, a large minor planet way out there on the solar system’s frontier.

This sentence’s punctuation suggests that Sedna is a parenthetical. However, the phrase following Sedna is an appositive, a type of parenthetical. To give readers a sense of relative importance, one of the two commas should be changed to another punctuation mark to erase the implication that they have the same organizational weight. The clearest solution is to use a colon in place of the first comma to set up the description of what “one of these six objects” is: “He discovered one of these six objects more than a decade ago: Sedna, a large minor planet way out there on the solar system’s frontier.”

4. Twitter’s product head Kevin Weil, media head Katie Jacobs Stanton, senior vice president of engineering Alex Roetter, and Vine head Jason Toff are all leaving the company.

To associate the series of appositives in this sentence, all names should be set off with commas, but that more than doubles the number of punctuation marks, which clutters the sentence. Better yet, simply change the possessive form of the company name to its base form, so that “Twitter product head” and the subsequent equivalent titles become simple descriptive phrases, thus eliminating the need for parenthetical pairs of commas: “Twitter product head Kevin Weil, media head Katie Jacobs Stanton, senior vice president of engineering Alex Roetter, and Vine head Jason Toff are all leaving the company.”

5. Engineering—figuring out how to do something—is the motivation, while repetition—making the same type of components over and over again—slows him down.

Using more than one set of dashes to bracket parenthetical comments in one sentence may confuse the reader, so use parentheses instead when two or more parallel parenthetical elements are involved: “Engineering (figuring out how to do something) is the motivation, while repetition (making the same type of components over and over again) slows him down.”

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