3 Types of Parenthetical Problems

By Mark Nichol

1. The survey found increasing demand for customer experiences that are difficult, if not impossible to deliver with legacy systems.

Writers sometimes carelessly neglect to close a syntactical door after opening it. In this case, “if not impossible” is a parenthetical interjected into the main clause, so a comma must follow as well as precede it: “The survey found increasing demand for customer experiences that are difficult, if not impossible, to deliver with legacy systems.”

2. Similar to the Internet in the 1990s that transformed business models to adopt e-commerce and new ways of working, cryptocurrencies and blockchain have the potential to disrupt in ways not even imagined.

There is only one Internet, but this sentence implies that more than one exists, and that the one in question transformed business models in the manner described, but the reference to transformation is parenthetical, and nonessential to the main clause, so it should be set off with a comma as a parenthetical by preceding which, which replaces that to signal the nonrestrictive nature of the parenthetical: “Similar to the Internet in the 1990s, which transformed business models to adopt e-commerce and new ways of working, cryptocurrencies and blockchain have the potential to disrupt in ways not even imagined.” (The comma that separates the subordinate clause, “Similar . . . working,” from the main clause, “cryptocurrencies . . . imagined,” doubles as the parenthesis-closing punctuation mark.)

3. Three board members, John Doe, former CEO of World Wide Wickets; Jane Smith, CEO of Global Tetrahedron; and James Jones, executive director of the Church of the SubGenius; voted against the measure.

The series of names and job titles is parenthetical to the main clause, “Three board members voted against the measure.” However, the punctuation marks that open and close the parenthetical do not match, and all the semicolons are problematic because they syntactically cut off “voted against the measure” from the rest of the sentence.

The simple solution is to replace the overkill semicolons with commas because the sentence structure precludes confusion about the corresponding names and titles: “Three board members, John Doe, former CEO of World Wide Wickets, Jane Smith, CEO of Global Tetrahedron, and James Jones, executive director of the Church of the SubGenius, voted against the measure.”

Alternatively, if the writer insists on using semicolons, splice the two parts of the main clause into one uninterrupted statement as a setup to a list that follows a colon: “Three board members voted against the measure: John Doe, former CEO of World Wide Wickets; Jane Smith, CEO of Global Tetrahedron; and James Jones, executive director of the Church of the SubGenius.”

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3 Responses to “3 Types of Parenthetical Problems”

  • Agua Caliente

    I should probably not have been reading this while in a phone conference (at least I am Muted)…because “7 commas” and “…whatever ridiculous thing you may have said” caused an audible response from me. 🙂
    Semi-fan here, as long as they are neither over-used nor used incorrectly. The semi-colon is a handy and indispensable tool!

  • venqax

    I agree, I think. I don’t see how 7 commas is an improvement over much of anything. Personally, I like semicolons. Most people have no idea how to use them and if you do they give you great leeway with whatever ridiculous thing you may have said.

  • Thebluebird11

    In your third example, I think the alternative method of recasting the sentence works the best, in part because it does not keep you waiting to find out what the writer wants to tell you about these three people. I also don’t like all the commas in the first correction, and I do prefer the semi-colons, which clearly work well in the alternative fix. Just my two cents.

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