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Devon 12-03-2011 11:04 AM

Parenthetical Phrases
Originally written by Andrew Braun
Today you’re going to read an article about parenthetical phrases. Why? Because I know how much you love learning about grammar. (And no, I'm not psychic for knowing what you're going to read. It’s a safe bet that you’re going to read an article about parenthetical phrases because you’ve already started this one, and, lo and behold, this article is about parenthetical phrases. Move over, Nostradamus!)

Chances are you’ve used parenthetical phrases before. You might already know how to write one in your sleep, with any piece of punctuation that you wish. So why the article? Well, maybe it’ll help you find ways to use a parenthetical phrase that you hadn’t thought of before. Something ancient and arcane that I dug up for this article. Or perhaps you’ll just learn what that thingamabob in that weird sentence you read yesterday was. Maybe you’ll find the cure for all human greed and meanness. I’ve already discovered it, but I’m not going to let anyone else have it because I’d rather throw rocks at people from my porch.

In the past two paragraphs, we’ve covered nothing and nothing about parenthetical phrases. That’s going to end right here, because...

Parenthetical phrases add detail, opinion, or just general colour—a broad category into which I’ll undoubtedly stuff a bunch of things—to a sentence, but aren’t needed for the sentence to survive on its own. The article writer, rambler that he was, wasted two paragraphs before beginning the actual article. The bold highlights the parenthetical phrase, and you could just whisk that away with no damage done to what the sentence is saying. The article writer wasted two paragraphs before beginning the actual article. The parenthetical phrase tells you a bit about the subject, and is useful for character development. Now that we know he’s a rambler, we can nod knowingly when he accidentally segues from last night’s movie to the lack of oxygen on the moon. You can use parenthetical phrases for...

An analogy, simile, et cetera—preferably clever: The only way to win at love, a game of chess where the board is nonexistent and the pieces invisible, is not to play at all. [The author takes full credit for making that one up, and thinks himself enormously clever for it. – Ed.]

Noun modification: The writing desk, unhelpful and balky, refused to give Bic directions to the pencil sharpener. Smart people call these “appositive adjectives.” What they do is provide extra information about the noun in question. Pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the last category, but more focused on modification than analogy. A regular appositive phrase is probably the most common type of parenthetical phrase, however, and doesn’t need to be made up of adjectives. For instance: The little dog, a new arrival to Haiti, started his own drug-running business and made a killing.

An opinion (Whether it be the narrator’s, the speaking character’s, or your own witty remarks): “Your guitar, a faded, battered old thing, has probably seen its share of murders, Mister Smith.That was the speaking character’s opinion. He is presumably a lawyer, and thus is used to using parenthetical phrases in his business writing. Believe it or not, they’re quite the rage in legal documents, as they can make a major addition look like a minor tack-on to a careless reader. “And the undersigned agrees to give me fifty cents, a dull pencil, his old office chair—with his life savings tucked insidea pine cone, and Marty, my old pet boa constrictor.Imagine that tucked inside a hundred layers of legalese. Lawyers probably have a special word for parenthetical phrases. Laymen may call them “weasel words” or, more often, something involving expletives.

Contrast: Ceiling fans, however strong they may look, will not support a beagle in an Underdog costume for very long at all. For a contrast you need to use a negative conjunction before the phrase, such as though, however, or but.

Basically, stick an unnecessary description, simile, contrast, opinion, comment, or sly wit in between some commas after the noun you’re trying to modify, and you’re golden. You are limited only by your imagination.

Speaking of imagination, let’s talk about punctuation! Hey, stop that snickering in the back! Punctuation is plenty imaginative. Sort of. Well, who asked you anyway?

You probably noticed that one or two of my parenthetical phrases used dashes to set them off. That was not a mistake. Phrases in emdashes are also considered parenthetical phrases! As are, interestingly enough, phrases in parentheses. Some changes have to be made to both dashed and parenthesised phrases on occasion, but usually what works for commas works for dashes and parentheses. For example: The little dog, a new arrival to Haiti, started his own drug-running business and made a killing. That could become: The little doga new arrival to Haitistarted his own drug-running business and made a killing. Or it could be: The little dog (a new arrival to Haiti) started his own drug-running business and made a killing. It’s up to the writer to make the judgment of what works where, and is almost completely a style choice. I used commas almost exclusively in my examples, for the sake of consistency and clarity, but if you care to go back and substitute emdashes or parentheses for any of them, you’ll find little difference, save in terms of feel and flow. The use of commas is a more easy-to-read, descriptive tone with an even touch, while emdashes are quicker and suggest a rushed, yet important insertion into the sentence. Parentheses are usually used for afterthoughts, and are more common in technical documents than fiction writing as their general feel is more factual. But, whatever or however you use it, a parenthetical phrase is still a parenthetical phrase, and always useful.

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