Posted by: Jack Henry | January 23, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Parenthetical Expressions

Can I get a shout-out for parenthetical expressions?! Maybe not. Can I get a slight nod indicating partial interest? Thank you! You always come through for me.

I hope you realize that I am discussing “parenthetical” not “parental” expressions. This is not a missive on all the weird or confusing expressions you’ve heard from your parents, like “I’ll give you what for in a minute.” “You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face if you’re not careful.” “Don’t get smart with me!” and “We’re off, like a herd of turtles.”

No, I’m discussing information that is non-essential to the rest of your sentence. That’s much more exciting!

For those of you who’ve wondered, and for those of you who haven’t but still might be slightly intrigued, I’m going to clarify when to use commas, when to use parentheses, and when to use dashes for non-essential information (also referred to as parenthetical information or supplementary information) in your sentences.

For those of you saying, “What the heck is she even talking about?” I’ll start with an example of parenthetical information using commas:

  • Few people would know, or even be able to guess, what my middle name is.

In my example, the phrase “or even be able to guess” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. The phrase could be removed, and the sentence would still make sense. When you have a non-essential phrase like that, you need to set it off with commas, parentheses, or dashes. But the question you’re all dying to know the answer to is “How do I know which type of punctuation to use?”

With a little help from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), I’m going to tell you.

Commas are the most common of the three choices. However, commas usually only set off information that is flows grammatically with the rest of the sentence (like my example above); whereas, parentheses and dashes can set off information that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence. These examples from CMOS show what I mean:

  • Intelligence tests (e.g., the Stanford-Binet) are no longer widely used.
  • Our final sample (collected under difficult conditions) contained an impurity.
  • Wexford’s analysis (see chapter 3) is more to the point.
  • The chancellor—he had been awake half the night—came down in an angry mood.
  • My friends—that is, my former friends—ganged up on me.

The information is still non-essential, but the phrasing without the parentheses or dashes (which, by the way, are em dashes with no space before or after) would not be grammatically correct. The sentence would likely be hard to understand without the punctuation.

Now you’re probably asking, “But how, oh how do I know when to use parentheses and when to use dashes?” You ask all the right questions! So, here’s the scoop: they’re really kind of interchangeable, but em dashes are less common—we tend to use them more sparingly.

if you really want a differentiator, you can use parentheses to indicate supplemental context and you can use dashes to indicate a break in thought. You’ll see that my previous examples from CMOS follow that logic. Both parentheses and dashes are useful when you’re writing a complex sentence with several clauses, and introducing another comma would make the flow of the sentence hard to follow.

And there you have it: all you ever wanted to know, and more, about parenthetical expressions. I have nothing much more to say about parental expressions either. But I do have a few images.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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