8 Types of Parenthetical Phrases

By Mark Nichol

A parenthetical phrase, sometimes called simply a parenthetical, is one that is not essential to the framing sentence. In the preceding sentence, the phrase “sometimes called simply a parenthetical” is itself a parenthetical because the segments of the sentence that precede and follow it can be attached to form a complete sentence without it: “A parenthetical phrase is one that is not essential to the framing sentence.”

However, a parenthetical can also begin or end a sentence, and though only these three syntactical variations exist, a parenthetical can be categorized as serving one of eight functions. Here is a roster of the types, with a sentence that demonstrates each one:

1. Absolute phrase: An absolute phrase, which contains at least a noun or a pronoun and a participle but not a true verb, modifies the entire sentence: “Jane stayed up late, writing her report.” (The phrase may also begin the sentence.)

2. Appositive: In this case, the parenthetical is an appositive, a noun or noun phrase placed in opposition to another such construction that defines or modifies the first: “If you, an experienced hiker, had trouble, how hard will it be for me?”

3. Aside: An aside is a statement that is subordinated to the sentence, often denoting an ingratiating or apologetic attitude. It might also be placed within parentheses to more clearly identify it as a trivial comment or between em dashes to signal its sudden and/or unexpected impact: “Her friend, I hesitate to say, has betrayed her.”

4. Free modifier: A free modifier is an unspecialized interruption of additional information: “I stood up and, brushing off my pants, continued along my way.”

5. Interjection: An interjection imparts information about the writer’s (or speaker’s) state of mind, as in this sentence in which the interjection implies impatience or indignation: “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?

6. Introductory phrase: This element preceding the main statement provides context for the sentence: “While I was on vacation, I had an epiphany.”

7. Resumptive modifier: A resumptive modifier includes within its additional detail repetition of an adjective from the sentence: “She was exhausted, more exhausted than she had ever been before.”

8. Summative modifier: A summative modifier is one that summarizes an idea expressed in the sentence and then adds information about it: “We headed toward the summit, a goal we had anticipated accomplishing all week.”

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6 Responses to “8 Types of Parenthetical Phrases”

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    Thank you for this summary, which is very useful because these distinctions aren’t ordinarily school taught. I find that the distinction between absolute modifiers and free modifiers remains a bit elusive. The example of each seems it could serve as an example of the other.

  • Michael Rochelle

    Apparently, I need a refresher on comma usage. In the absolute phrase example, “Jane stayed up late, writing her report,” I don’t know if I would have thought to use the comma between late and writing. Is that always required? If I wrote, “I spent the day typing the report,” is a comma not required because “I spent the day” it can’t serve as a complete sentence like “Jane stayed up late”?

  • Sally

    Yes, indeed, thank you, Mark.

    I too have trouble with the category “Absolute Phrase.” It seems that in your example, the appositional phrase is explanatory. If the phrase comes at the beginning of the sentence, it would seem to be temporal, and thus the same as the “Introductory Phrase.”

    Perhaps there is a distinction here that I’m missing?

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    Re Michael Rochelle. Here’s a similar absolute phrase that definitely requires a comma: “Jane stayed up later than I, writing her report.” This sentence needs the comma between “I” and “writing” because the absolute phrase beginning with “writing” is immediately preceded by a noun or pronoun (“I”), which the phrase might otherwise be thought to modify.

    But in “Jane stayed up late writing her report,” I wouldn’t use a comma.

  • Kim

    Excellent post! Thank you for this invaluable information.

  • Edwin Ashworth

    Thank you for this excellent list of different types of parentheticals.

    I too have been trying to pin down the difference between participial phrases (if we’re still allowed to believe they’re not better analysed as non-finite clauses) used as absolute phrases and used as free modifiers. There are a lot of somewhat conflicting ideas on the web!

    The prototypical absolute phrase seems to be the easily-identified noun phrase + participle (+ optional modifiers), such as:
    Tom ran, his long hair streaming out in the breeze, …

    Some (not all) authorities (!?) on the web allow for various other constructions. An explanation for some is that they are ellipted forms of the central construction:
    All his thoughts [being] on buying an ice cream, Tim didn’t see the puddle until it was too late.

    However, with
    Jane stayed up late, writing her report. or Jane stayed up late working.
    it’s hard to see what could have been ellipted. If we look at what the phrase ‘writing her report’ is modifying, on the other hand, it’s really the subject AND predicate – the whole statement – rather than either part. Indeed, I think the analysis offered in Collins Cobuild might call this a ‘phase structure’ as with ‘go shopping’; ‘kneel praying’.
    Am I right in saying that
    Jane stayed up late working.
    is (or rather contains) an example of an absolute phrase, while
    Jane came in late, crying. (where the participle now seems to refer solely to Jane and not (meaningfully) her late arrival home)
    is an example of a free modifier?

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