A Quiz About Parenthetical Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

Em dashes are woefully underused and misused. Here are five sentences that would be much improved by their proper use, or by proper use of other punctuation in cooperation with them. Determine how each sentence would benefit from changes in punctuation and compare your revisions with my suggested solutions at the bottom of the page:

1. “Not in years, like more than ten years, have I seen someone so committed to owning the stage.”

2. “Such pioneers trigger and indeed hope for gentrification — leading to more and more middle-class home buyers being willing to take a chance on the neighborhood.”

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

4. “It’ll take years to know if it works in humans — but in mice — the tumors almost completely disappeared.”

5. “Consumer-oriented businesses are trying to find the words, logo, image — and, of course, products — that will indelibly brand themselves as environmentally friendly.”

Answers and Explanations

1. The phrase “like more than ten years” (with like, as an interjection, separated from the rest of the phrase with a comma), is more emphatic than one that would merely be parenthesized between commas: “Not in years — like, more than ten years — have I seen someone so committed to owning the stage.”

2. The clause beginning with leading does not merit being set off from the rest of the sentence with an em dash, but the phrase “and indeed hope for,” with the interjection indeed bracketed by commas, should be emphasized by being framed by a pair of em dashes: “Such pioneers trigger — and, indeed, hope for — gentrification, leading to more and more middle-class home buyers being willing to take a chance on the neighborhood.”

3. “Yes you,” with a necessary comma between the words, is such an interruptive element that bracketing by a pair of em dashes is necessary: “You—yes, you—can say you were there for the advent of the Apple iPod.”

4. Just as you’d do in the case of a pair of commas in a sentence that doesn’t sound quite right, diagnostically remove a parenthetical phrase framed by em dashes from an awkward sentence. In this case, “but in mice” is an essential dependent clause for the second half of the sentence, and the em dash following it is incorrect. The first em dash can be replaced by a comma, or the single dash can be retained: “It’ll take years to know if it works in humans — but in mice, the tumors almost completely disappeared.”

5. Parentheticals are just that — interjections, short or long, that are parenthetical to the main sentence, and any parts of speech within them are integral to the interjection alone. Therefore, without the parenthesis set off by em dashes, this sentence lacks a conjunction in the list of three elements preceding the first dash. Here’s the corrected version: “Consumer-oriented businesses are trying to find the words, logo, and image—and, of course, products—that will indelibly brand themselves as environmentally friendly.”

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11 Responses to “A Quiz About Parenthetical Punctuation”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Huh, totally didn’t know any of these. Seems as though I have to learn more. Always a good day when I know I can learn more. Thanks for sharing, I appreciate it!

  • Sven R. Kunze

    Thank you for the elucidation on parenthetical punctuation. 🙂

    However, just one tiny thing, I’d like to mention. When using dashes, please be consistent in using spaces before and after them.

    As far as I know, en-dashes require the presence of spaces whereas em-dashes do not. Besides using em-dashes at all – IMHO, they look ugly – the more important thing is to set no spaces around them otherwise you tear the whole text apart.

  • hz

    Um, for the first one, is ‘like’ needed at all? Is that really a proper preposition? Couldn’t you simply say “Not in years – more than 10 years…”?

  • Bobby

    I have seen em dashes used with both a space between it and the characters as you use in examples one, two, and four (a — a), and without that space as you use in examples three and five (b–b). Is there a rule regarding that spacing, or is it a matter of preference?

  • Jordan

    Spacing around em dashes is, indeed, a matter of style. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the authority for most book publishers, avoids spaces around the em dash. Associated Press style, used by most newspapers, requires a single space on each side of the em dash.

    I personally prefer Chicago style. Whichever style you choose, use it consistently.

  • Sven R. Kunze

    @Bobby: There are several guidelines out there which represent their own preference. However, when it come to personal preference, it is like religion – believe it or not. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they dictate consistency all over a text; to which I agree.

    I know that in English writings the em-dash without spaces is sometimes preferred before the en-dash for what ever reason.

    Though, I for one believe in typography, which embraces the setting of dashes, as a set of rules to guide the reader’s eyes. Thus, as I have already written, en-dashes – with spaces around them – do not tear the text apart whereas em-dashes do. Unfortunately, this is only a preference. 😉

  • Em-Power-Me

    What happened with #5? The “corrected” version is identical

  • Sven R. Kunze

    @Em-Power-Me: There is an additional ‘and’ within the corrected version.

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    I find the first sentence jarring even in its corrected form. I would delete the parenthetical phrase altogether and written: “Not in more than ten years have I seen someone so committed to owning the stage.”

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    What I meant to say is: I would delete the parenthetical phrase altogether and write…

  • Sven R. Kunze

    @Cliff: I totally agree with your corrected first sentence. Sounds more straightforward to me.

    However, removing them altogether… hmm… might not be appropriate. Such phrases can convey a flashing, elucidating thought. How would you present that to the reader?

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