3 Problematic Parentheticals

By Mark Nichol

Each of the following sentences is muddled because a parenthetical phrase is incorrectly punctuated. Discussion of each example explains the problem, and one or more revisions resolve it.

1. This phase consists of a management experience whose intensity and scope has few, if any rivals.

The phrase “if any” is a parenthetical—a sentence element that is not essential to the sentence but provides additional information or otherwise modifies the main clause. Parenthetical phrases must be set off with a pair of punctuation marks (parentheses, dashes, or, most commonly, commas): “This phase consists of a management experience whose intensity and scope has few, if any, rivals.”

2. The operational risks of widespread automation, for example loss of service and technical problems around delivery, could lead to wholesale firms being unable to transact.

The parenthetical phrase “for example” must be set off from the stated example, which itself, with the parenthetical, must be set off from the main clause: “The operational risks of widespread automation—for example, loss of service and technical problems around delivery—could lead to wholesale firms being unable to transact.” (Parentheses can replace the dashes, but to introduce a pair of commas would obscure the hierarchy of parenthesis within parenthesis.)

3. Smith, the superintendent of the park who has studied the history of the colony, said the photos are a reminder of the state’s rich and influential past.

The parenthetical phrase that describes Smith includes a phrase singling him out as one of two or more superintendents and identifies him as the one who has studied the history of the colony. However, Smith is the only superintendent, and the reference to his studies is additional, parenthetical information, so that phrase must be set off as a parenthesis modifying a parenthesis: “Smith, the park’s superintendent, who has studied the history of the colony, said the photos are a reminder of the state’s rich and influential past.”

Alternatively, the sentence can be reworded so that “the park’s superintendent” is the only parenthetical; “has studied the history of the colony” becomes the balance of the main clause, and the wording about his comment becomes an additional independent clause preceded by a conjunction: “Smith, the park’s superintendent, has studied the history of the colony, and he said the photos are a reminder of the state’s rich and influential past.”

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1 Response to “3 Problematic Parentheticals”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Strictly speaking, I do not believe that parentheses and brackets are mere “punctuation marks”. They serve a higher calling than this. Also, parentheses and brackets serve to clarify the “nesting” procedure for such constructions. For example,
    z = x[ (x + 1)(y + 2) + 3] is as plain as day to those who are well-versed in such things.
    The following is something in computer programming that was designed to torment people, especially students:
    In early forms of the programming language Fortran – circa 1970s and earlier – there were no such things as brackets and braces. In the above, and in more complicated expressions, they had to be typed (on a IBM keypunch machine, a device of sheer torture) like this: z = x( (x + 1)(y + 2) + 3).
    Furthermore, we continually got the error message, “Unmatched parentheses”. I found out that one of the things that the machine did was to merely count the number of left parentheses , and to count the number of right parentheses, and to compare the two to find out whether these were equal or not. That is silly.
    Then about 20 years later, I found out that the compiler – for the version we used in the 1970s – did not allow for the nesting of parentheses! NOBODY WROTE OR SAID ANYTHING ABOUT THIS.
    I figured this out when I was a graduate student in a statistics class that was designed for heavy use of “canned” software for big problems in statistics. One thing that we could do was to write custom subroutines in Fortran, and I needed this.
    I immediately got error messages: “Unmatched parentheses!”, over and over again. I quickly figured out that the compiler was not allowing of the nesting of parentheses. (Nobody had said anything, yet!). I simply rewrote my subroutine w/o any nesting, and everything worked fine.
    There is a huge difference between a college sophomore in Fortran class and a second-year graduate student in mathematics (and who is also an engineer) !! The second time around, I figured it out immediately, and I recognized that the statistics program was using an old, old version of a Fortran compiler.
    Also, even back in the 1970s, there were computer languages like BASIC that were completely happy with nested parentheses, and they gave us no trouble. Furthermore, I had studied BASIC first – it was my very first programming language.
    Whoever wrote our textbook and other things for the Fortran class should have been thrown into a snake pit, and likewise for my teacher in Fortran in 1975.

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