Put Parenthetical Phrases in Their Place

By Mark Nichol

Sentences can be simple. Or, by inserting a phrase within a sentence, as I’m doing here, they can become complex. Doing so by adding what’s called a parenthetical phrase, or a parenthetical, makes sentences richer and more informative; no one wants to read sentence after sentence at the level of complexity of “See Dick run.”

But writers must take care that when they surgically incise a sentence to insert a parenthetical, they suture the sentence at the right spot. Think of one comma as a hook holding the sentence open, and a second comma hooking it closed. (Dashes and parenthetical marks can be used, too, but this post focuses on the simplest and most common strategy.)

Consider this sentence: “As this process occurs, astronomers say the spectacle may even become a meteor storm.” It may seem fine at first, but notice that it appears to imply that the astronomers talk about the spectacle as the process occurs. That’s obviously not what it means.

“Astronomers say” is what’s called an attribution — identifying the source of a comment — and it’s often conveniently thrown into the middle of a sentence to provide this clarity. But if you insert such a parenthetical, you have to hitch the sentence open with one comma and close it back up with another: “As this process occurs, astronomers say, the spectacle may even become a meteor storm.”

Take a look at this sentence: “By 2030, demographers estimate twice as many people will live in urban areas as in rural regions.” Will the doubling occur that year, or will the demographers present their estimation at that time? It’s unclear, unless you signal that the reference to the demographers’ action is a parenthetical phrase, inserted into the root sentence to provide some context. “By 2030, demographers estimate, twice as many people will live in urban areas as in rural regions” accomplishes that goal.

Here’s another sentence ripe for misunderstanding: “Demonstrators rode models of the Segway Human Transporter, a scooter invented by Dean Kamen at a park Monday morning.” This sentence implies that the inventor conjured the idea at the park on Monday morning, and — voila! – the vehicles were being demonstrated days later.

Wrong. “Demonstrators rode models of the Segway Human Transporter, a scooter invented by Dean Kamen, at a park Monday morning.” (The phrase “a scooter invented by Dean Kamen” is a parenthetical dropped into the sentence “Demonstrators rode models of the Segway Human Transporter at a park Monday morning” to provide context.)

In the case of parentheticals, commas (or parentheses or dashes) work in pairs — but they have to cue up to the right location to do their job. When in doubt, test punctuation of parentheticals by temporarily removing the inserted phrase to determine whether the root sentence makes sense. If not, then the punctuation is misplaced.

For example, something is wrong in “They meet, and with collection permit in hand, head for the trails to gather seeds.” Omit the parenthetical, and the root sentence reads, “They meet head for the trails to gather seeds.” And must remain in the root sentence, so the first comma must follow, not precede, and.

Remember: For parentheticals, punctuation pals in pairs — and in the proper place.

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10 Responses to “Put Parenthetical Phrases in Their Place”

  • Steve Thomas

    I think I see, said the blind man, what you are saying!

  • Judi

    The world would be a much better place if more people cared about such things!!

  • Michael

    Thanks Mark. Very helpful. I’m really enjoying your posts. By the way, I especially like the phrase ‘…they suture the sentence at the right spot.’

    At the risk of being accused of nitpickery: you seem to have a few dashed typos 🙂 That is, you mix up your em and en dashes, e.g. ‘…and — voila! – the vehicles…’ and ‘For parentheticals, punctuation pals in pairs — and in the proper place.’ I understand that there are differing opinions on the use of spaces around em dashes, so that’s no issue.

    Doubtless a slip of the keyboard here, though I hope my pedantry serves as a humble reminder and as a segue to a related question on my mind: When is it best to use dashes, brackets (i.e. parentheses) or commas for parenthetical phrases? I would certainly appreciate your view.

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    Thanks for your note. I saw just one en dash where an em dash belonged after voila!. I blame this error on the uploading process, and I’ll check with the webmaster about it.

    I discussed the relative functions and personalities of parenthetical punctuation in the post at http://www.dailywritingtips.com/parenthetical-phrases, but basically, commas are the default setting for parentheticals, for when the insertion is equal in status to the root sentence; parenthesis are for sneaking in an aside without disrupting the flow; and em dashes are to call attention to a brief digression.

  • Lauren

    This site keeps me on my toes, and as an editor, I love it. 🙂 Great article!

  • Michael

    Thanks Mark. I was wrong to correct you on the second em dash: ‘…pals in pairs — and in the…’ Apologies. Thanks too for your quick pointers and the link.

  • Michael Cortes

    I am no English major or journalist. As such, I do love to learn from those who are and those who are knowledgeable in the area of writing. I love this post and it certainly helps me to better understand the art of writing.

    Can you help with a question though? “As this process occurs, astronomers say, the spectacle may even become a meteor storm.”

    This sentence struck me. I learned how to use the comma properly in this sentence. But I also asked myself, “Why could not ‘astronomers say’ simply be moved to the front of the sentence?

    Would the sentence be correct if it were “Astronomers say that as this process occurs the spectacle may even become a meteor storm.” while still retaining its meaning?

    In addition, wouldn’t it avoid all the common confusion of proper comma usage?

    And finally, wouldn’t it retain its clarity with the greatest number of readers?

    Of course this is dependent on whether or not I constructed the sentence correctly. However, I always wonder if the simplest sentence that retains its clarity should be chosen so that the greatest number of readers will understand it.

    What are you thoughts?

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    Certainly, “Astronomers say that as this process occurs, the spectacle may even become a meteor storm” is also correct (though note my insertion of a comma, without which the sentence is rather breathless).

    But the syntax of my example retains a journalistic convention of mid-sentence attribution (whether a direct quote or a paraphrase) that provides a nice variety of sentence construction, especially if multiple attributions appear in a passage.

    Writing the simplest sentence that communicates your intent is an admirable goal in moderation, but in execution without exception, it would offer clarity at the expense of richness and texture, which does not preclude clarity. So, strive for that value, but don’t require a formulaic simplicity of every sentence.

  • Ken Danieli

    Thanks for the column.

    What’s your opinion of the location of an adjective clause relative to the noun that it modifies? (In some cases, where the clause is adjacent to a different noun, the misplacement can be confusing or misleading, while in others it can just be sloppy.)

    For example, do you see an error in this construction?:

    With success in the 2010 midterms, the tea party now finds itself in a place other political groups have in the past, such as the Know Nothing Party of the 1800s – charting a future that stays relevant in 2012.

  • Mark Nichol

    Ken:

    The phrase about the Know-Nothing Party is, as positioned, an obstacle to comprehension. I offer the following revision:

    With success in the 2010 midterms, the tea party now finds itself in a place other political groups, such as the Know Nothing Party of the 1800s, have in the past – charting a future that stays relevant in 2012.

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