A Quiz About Parenthetical Punctuation
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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