Friday, January 1, 2010

Parenthesis isn’t just optional material or an afterthought - Parts III and IV

We normally use the pair of curved marks known as the parenthesis to indicate textual material that’s optional to our sentence or that’s simply an afterthought. But the parenthesis is actually much more than just a punctuation for such added material. Indeed, the parenthesis in general is not the punctuation mark being used per se but the word, phrase, or even a full sentence that it encloses within the sentence. And the punctuation mark for parenthetical material isn’t necessarily the pair of curved marks that we are very familiar with; it could be a pair of enclosing commas or dashes—even brackets—depending on the degree of punctuation required by the parenthetical statement.

What follows are Parts III and IV of the four-part essay I wrote for my column in The Manila Times in January-February of 2008:

The parenthesis and its uses

Part III

We will now discuss the appositive phrase found in the following sentence that I presented for evaluation in the preceding essay: “Cleopatra, the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later, greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.” The appositive phrase here is, of course, the parenthetical “the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later.” It’s an added state­ment that gives context and texture to this vague, bare-bones sentence: “Cleopatra greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.”

On closer scrutiny, we will find that the appositive phrase is actually a simplified form of the nonrestrictive relative clause in this sentence: “Cleopatra, who was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later, greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.” It is, in fact, the relative clause “who was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later” with both the relative pronoun “who” and the linking verb “was” taken out.


That grammatical streamlining process produces a modifier in noun form—“the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later”—that is in apposition or equivalent to the noun form it modifies—“Cleopatra.” Indeed, appositive phrases are a compact and concise way of describing people, places, and things or of qualifying ideas within the same sentence. They allow us to provide more details about a subject without having to start another sentence—a process that sometimes undesirably slows down the pace of an unfolding exposition or narrative.


The use of appositive phrases, we now will probably recall, is also one of the most efficient ways of combining sentences. It allows a related statement from another sentence to be folded into the sen­tence that precedes it. The sentence that we are evaluating now, for instance, has combined these two sentences: “Cleopatra greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire. She was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later.” By making the state­ment in the second sentence an appo­sitive in the first, we get a sentence that’s richer in texture and more interest­ing to read: “Cleo­patra, the le­gendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later, greatly in­fluenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.”


Such constructions also have the added virtue of allowing us to develop the basic statement of a sentence unimpeded. Assume that we have already written this basic statement: “Cleopatra greatly influenced the affairs of the Roman Empire.” If we use the appositive phrase “the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later” to form a new sentence after it, that new sentence would often become a stumbling block to developing the basic statement. Indeed, with a powerful statement like “She was the legendary queen of Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide by asp bite 21 years later” getting in the way, it won’t be an easy task to go back to the thread of our basic statement and develop it. In contrast, folding that powerful statement into an appositive phrase in the first sentence neatly sidesteps the potential continuity problem while making that first sentence much more readable and interesting.


The appositive phrase we have discussed above is of the non­restrictive type, which means that it isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence even if it adds important additional information to it. Nonrestrictive appositive phrases are parentheticals that, like non­restrictive relative clauses, need a pair of enclosing commas to set them off from the sentence.

But some appositive phrases are of the restrictive type and they don’t need those commas. We will take them up in the next essay. (January 26, 2008)

The parenthesis and its uses

Part IV

We already know that a parenthesis or parenthetical is basically added information whose distinguishing characteristic is that the sentence remains grammatically correct even without it. So far, however, we have taken up only its first two types, the nonrestrictive relative clause and the nonrestrictive appositive phrase, both of which require enclosing commas to set them off from the sentence. We have also taken up the restrictive relative clause and the restrictive appositive phrase, but we have seen that they aren’t really true parentheticals because they are not expendable—we don’t really have the option to drop them from the sentence.

This time we’ll take up the two other kinds of parentheticals: the parenthesis by dashes, and the parenthesis by parentheses. They differ from the parenthesis by comma in that neither of them can be punctuated properly by a pair of enclosing commas. In their case, though, the use of dashes or parentheses is generally interchangeable and is often a matter of stylistic choice. This choice largely depends on whether the parenthetical is really optional or contextually necessary, perhaps simply an aside; in any case, however, using enclosing commas to set it off is out of the question.


Parenthesis by dashes. This kind of parenthetical normally folds another sentence into a sentence, as in this example: “Their kindly uncle was terminally ill—they said they didn’t know it then—but his nephews and nieces just went on their merry ways.” What sets off the parenthetical “they said they didn’t know it then” from the main sentence is a pair of double dashes, which indicates a much stronger break in the thought or structure of the sentence than what a pair of enclosing commas can provide.


See what happens when we use commas instead to punctuate that kind of parenthetical: “Their kindly uncle was terminally ill, they said they didn’t know it then, but his nephews and nieces just went on their merry ways.” The pauses provided by the two commas are much too brief to indicate the sudden shift from the major developing thought to the subordinate idea; structurally, they also truncate the sentence.


If the writer so chooses, however, parentheses may also be used for that same parenthetical: “Their kindly uncle was terminally ill (they said they didn’t know it then) but his nephews and nieces just went on their merry ways.” When parentheses are used, however, the implication is that the writer doesn’t attach as much importance to the qualifying idea as he or she would when using double dashes instead.


Parenthesis by parentheses. This is the preferred punctuation when the writer wants to convey to the reader that the idea in the parenthetical isn’t really crucial to his exposition, as in this example: “While I was driving it out of the used-car dealer’s yard, the nicely refurbished 1994 sedan (the dealer assured me its engine had just been overhauled) busted one of its pistons.” However, if the writer intends to take up the dealer’s apparently false assurance in some detail later in the exposition, the parenthesis by dashes would be a good foreshadowing device: “While I was driving it out of the used-car dealer’s yard, the nicely refurbished 1994 sedan—the dealer assured me its engine had just been overhauled—busted one of its pistons.”


Parentheticals enclosed by parentheses need not be complete sentences, of course. They can be simple qualifying phrases within or at the tail end of sentences: “Many elective officials (of the dynastic kind, particularly) sometimes forget that they don’t own those positions.” “The disgruntled cashier took the day off (without even filing a leave).”


Even more commonly, parentheses are used to add a fact—maybe a name or number—that’s subordinate or tangential to the rest of the sentence, as in this example: “Recent geologic research (Alvarez, Alvarez et al, 1980) indicates that the dinosaurs went extinct when an asteroid some 10 km in diameter smashed on present-day Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula some 65 million years ago.” (February 9, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 26 and February 9, 2008, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks very much for this, and for your blog in general. I'm still confused. (Should I have written "Thanks very much for this—-and for your blog in general"?) So the decision to use parentheses or dashes depends on the writer's intention later on in the piece? And if the writer uses dashes, does he put a space before and after each dash?

    Thanks in advance!

    P.S.: May I suggest a future topic? Here's one: how do you determine which relative pronouns to use ("the stranger who" or "the stranger that")? Here's another: why is it so tempting to veer from the indicative to the imperfect?

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  2. Dear Migs,

    You’re welcome!

    Yes, the use of parenthesis—whether punctuated by a pair of curved marks or commas or by double-dashes—depends on the writer’s intention, but the decision to do so can be made either during the act of writing or as an afterthought when the writing is done. It is the writer’s way of conveying to the reader how important the parenthetical is to the exposition or narrative; sometimes, it can also be used to imbue a sense of drama to a statement. For instance, by writing “Thanks very much for this—and for your blog in general” using the pair of double-dashes as punctuation, you give the statement more moment and cogency than by simply writing it as “Thanks very much for this, and for your blog in general” using the comma as punctuation.” And when you write it as “Thanks very much for this (and for your blog in general)” using the pair of curved marks as punctuation, you further diminish the importance of the parenthetical statement to the level of a minor afterthought.

    When using dashes, should a writer put a space before and after each dash? The choice is largely a matter of style. Some newspapers, notably The New York Times and some of the Metro Manila broadsheets, put a space before and after a single em dash, like this: “The suspect – a long known criminal – was arrested last night.” Others do it this way: “The suspect—a long known criminal—was arrested last night,” without a space before and after the double-dash. I prefer the latter style because I think it’s more elegant.

    How do you determine whether to use the relative pronoun “who” or “that” in constructions like “the stranger who/that”? It’s rather complicated, Migs, requiring as it does a full understanding of the nature of the relative pronouns and the unique characteristics of the function word “that.” I’m afraid I can’t explain it within the small compass of this blog posting. However, I have discussed this matter extensively in my book Give Your English the Winning Edge; you may want to get hold of the book and check the explanation in Chapters 105-108.

    Why is it so tempting to veer from the indicative to the imperfect? A fascinating question! I really haven’t given it much thought, the imperfect being a rarely used aspect in English, but I promise to look into it.

    Joe Carillo

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  3. How often could we use parentheticals, say, in a 300-word article? Are there rules on what should be specified in them?

    Thank you.

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