5 Problems with Parenthesis

By Mark Nichol

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Parenthesis is the strategy of setting a word, phrase, or clause off from a sentence to interject additional information into that statement. Despite the name, parenthesis can be accomplished with two commas or a pair of dashes as well as with a brace of parentheses. However, several problems can occur when writers attempt to parenthesize: The punctuation employed is not appropriate, the parenthesis is not framed with complementary punctuation, the parenthesis is misplaced in the sentence, the inclusion of the parenthesis is grammatically faulty, or what appears to be a parenthetical element is in fact something else. The following sentences illustrate these five problems respectively.

1. He took it from me, stole it, really, years ago.

Really is a parenthesis subordinate to “stole it” (a parenthesis can follow rather than interrupt the phrase or clause it supplements), and “stole it, really” is a parenthesis subordinate to “He took it from me years ago,” so a hierarchy of punctuation should be employed to clarify the sentence organization. Because dashes are more emphatic than commas, they should assume the major parenthetical role; the comma separating “stole it” and really remains as a marker of the secondary parenthesis: “He took it from me—stole it, really—years ago.”

2. Extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from the disadvantaged.

The writer intended “Extra money and facilities must be focused on the disadvantaged” to be the main clause, with “not away from” as the parenthesis, but the second of a tandem team of punctuation marks is missing: “Extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from, the disadvantaged.” (Often, a main clause or a parenthesis also lacks one or more words because the writer failed to be vigilant about making the two sentence elements complementary, rendering the sentence grammatically flawed; search for “interpolated coordination” on this site for posts about this related issue.)

3. Attacks relating to phishing fraud attempts have been very common in recent times (e.g., someone posing as an organization’s CEO emails its chief financial officer to request an urgent payment transfer).

A parenthesis should be directly adjacent to the element of the sentence it pertains to. This parenthesis relates to “attacks relating to fraud attempts,” not to “recent times,” so it should immediately follow the former phrase: “Attacks relating to phishing fraud attempts (e.g., someone posing as an organization’s CEO emails its chief financial officer to request an urgent payment transfer) have been very common in recent times.”

4. The financial services industry has raised concerns related to the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection’s (BCFP) authority to take action against financial institutions.

When using a term that will be subsequently referred to by an acronym or initialism, introduce the abbreviation in parentheses immediately following the spelled-out term. However, avoid doing so when using the term possessively and following the parenthesis with a noun that is a referent of the possessive; recast the sentence so that the possessive form of the term is not employed: “The financial services industry has raised concerns related to the authority of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (BCFP) to take action against financial institutions.”

5. But the battle has not been lost—the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve—as one door closes, another is opened.

This sentence is punctuated as if “the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve” is a parenthetical statement interrupting the framing sentence, but the statement that remains when the parenthesis is omitted is “But the battle has not been lost[;] as one door closes, another is opened.” The resulting sentence makes sense, but when the omitted phrase is reinserted, the final clause reads as if it is an offshoot of the reinstated phrase, rather than a parenthetical phrase interrupting the two clauses. In other words, this sentence’s syntax does not support a parenthetical phrase.

Each dash, by itself, correctly signals that a shift in syntax is imminent (another function of the dash besides parenthesis), but so that the two dashes are not misinterpreted as bracketing a parenthetical comment, another punctuation mark should replace one dash or the other; any of the following solutions are suitable:

A. “But the battle has not been lost—the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve; as one door closes, another is opened.”
B. “But the battle has not been lost—the battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve. As one door closes, another is opened.”
C. “But the battle has not been lost: The battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve—as one door closes, another is opened.”
D. “But the battle has not been lost. The battlefield keeps changing and continuing to evolve—as one door closes, another is opened.”

Any of these revisions will resolve the issue; I prefer either of the two that result in two sentences: examples B or D.

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