I don’t know about you, but I hate being interrupted. It makes me feel like what I have to say has no value.
I also have a hard time when people interrupt themselves, as I’m a bit too ADHD to hop back and forth between the tangent and the original subject of the conversation. However, my youngest son
points out (constantly, I might add) that I “always” interrupt myself when I speak.
In any case, I’m currently editing a book whose author has a thing for dashes, and it got me thinking that deconstructing the parenthetical mystique would be a good subject for this week’s Comedy Grammar post.
My first stop was one of my favorite books, Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Yes, you heard right; it is one of my favorite books, right up there with Jane Eyre and The Shipping News. I highly recommend it for any author. It’s relatively easy to find a copy in used bookstores. Not only does Fowler cover just about everything in the English language (think The Elements of Style on steroids), he’s a hoot.
So with a hat tip to Fowler, let’s get started.
Properties common to all parenthetical devices
All parenthetical statements have these properties in common:
- They interrupt the main subject of a sentence, but are not totally off topic.
- They must make sense within the context of the sentence, i.e., they cannot be random fragments (but they don’t have to be complete phrases or sentences).
- The two clauses or phrases they interrupt must fit together and make sense without the interruption (in terms of context, grammar, case, etc.).
I am not a huge fan of the dash. I think it’s way overused; a simple comma or set of parentheses will usually do just as well or better. I find it extremely interruptive, and feel it makes the sentence choppy. My recommendation? Use it if you want your sentence to be choppy.
In dialogue, a dash is useful when, for example, one of your characters is on the phone and someone interrupts her. (BTW, I just used a parenthetical statement in that last sentence: “for example”.) Here, however, the parenthetical statement will not necessarily be connected to the main sentence.
Quick technical issue: there are three sizes of dashes, the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash. The hyphen is NEVER used as interruptive punctuation. The other two are. An en dash is the width of an N and an em dash is the width of an M. Em dashes are becoming less and less popular as the years go by, so I will be using an en dash in this post.
In terms of interruptive properties, according to Fowler, the dash is more interruptive than a comma (which we will cover in our next Comedy Grammar lesson), but less so than a pair of round parentheses. As with all parenthetical devices, the main clause(s) of the sentence must fit together perfectly, and the best way to test this is to take the phrase enclosed in dashes out and read what’s left. Here are some examples:
- My son – you know, the one in the army – will be coming home at the end of the week.
- He needs a new kitbag – green, strong, and made of canvas – and who do you think has to pay for it?
- While he’s home – for forty-eight hours only – he’ll see friends and do laundry.
- “And so I said to her – hold on, Johnny, I’ll slice the banana for you in a minute – ‘You have quite the nerve asking me to drive carpool three days in a row!'”
Okay, let’s test these sentences according to the rules:
- Do they interrupt the main subject of the sentence? Are they not completely off-topic?
- Do they make sense in the context of the sentence as a whole? If they’re fragments, are they “logical” ones?
- Do the two main clauses make a complete sentence?
Let’s take a look now at what would happen if I broke the rules:
- While my son is home – he’s hoping to travel to South America when he finishes the army – he’ll see friends and do laundry.
The problem with the interruption here is that it has nothing to do with my son’s being home (first part of the main sentence), nor does it have anything to do with his being sociable and
having me do doing his laundry (second part of the main sentence). It would be better to turn the fragment into its own sentence.
- My son – army – will be coming home at the end of the week.
The term “army” doesn’t make sense here. It’s a random fragment. It doesn’t describe “my son” because it lacks a descriptive element alongside the noun, i.e., “the one in the” or “who is in the”.
- He needs a new kitbag – green, strong, and made of canvas – and then I bought him some warm socks, and he’ll be driving back to base.
Besides this being an awful sentence, if you took out the dash-surrounded phrase, you’d have a jumble of verb tenses, ideas, and activities. If you wanted to salvage something from here, you could say: “He needs a new kitbag – green, strong, and made of canvas.” End of sentence.
I like to think of parentheses – also called round brackets – as an aside, as if the author is walking on stage to give the audience a (subtle or not-so-subtle) hint. As I said above, it’s a bit more interruptive than a dash, and therefore you can stray a bit more off-topic with it than with a dash. For example:
- My son the soldier (can you believe he’s in the army?) is learning how to shoot a rifle. Here, I’m interrupting myself and giving the old “elbow-elbow-wink-wink” to my interlocutor. The parenthetical phrase is off-topic from the rest of the sentence, but still within the parameters of the general subject matter.
- Johnny (not my son, my nephew) is learning how to shoot a rifle. Here it feels like I’m anticipating that the person with whom I am speaking will misunderstand which Johnny I’m talking about. So although this parenthetical phrase also has less to do with the main clause than the sentences that contained dashes, it is still important for clarification purposes.
- My son came home from the army and did his own laundry. (Thankfully, he didn’t ask me to do it for him.) Just a head’s up: when your parenthetical statement comes after a full sentence, you put the punctuation inside the parentheses. In no other case do you put punctuation immediately before an open parenthesis.
Brackets are also called square brackets (as opposed to round brackets, i.e., parentheses). They are used when an omniscient being is interrupting or clarifying the prose. Brackets are the most off-topic, as they are divorced from the subject matter, the point of view, and/or the quotation. They can be used in the following situations:
- When an author is quoting someone but needs to change the quote to make the prose sound better: Johnny said that “[he] always wanted to fly a combat helicopter.” The original quote was “I always wanted to fly a combat helicopter,” but the author was using third person and thus changed the I to he.
- When more explanation is necessary: “All of them joined in the valley of Siddim, which is [now] the Salt Sea” (Genesis 14:3). The word “now” is not in the original Hebrew, but is added because the Salt Sea wasn’t called the Salt Sea at the time of the war being described in this verse; it was called the valley of Siddim at that time. A literal translation might confuse readers, most of whom assume that a valley is not a sea. (Notice, by the way, that I enclose the source, i.e., Genesis 14:3, in parentheses.)
- When the author is quoting directly from a source but is worried her readers will think she’s an idiot: “Your [sic] a nice person,” she wrote. The author has inserted “sic” here to make sure we all know that she herself would never in a million years write “your” when she means “you’re.”
- When an author is substituting an original phrase for one of his own choosing: The radio show host said the prime minister was the biggest [expletive deleted] in the history of the world.
A word of caution
Naturally, the interruption punctuation hierarchy isn’t written in stone, so use your good judgment and your own special style when making decisions about which device to use. Often, the tone of the prose will set the standard. For example, light, whimsical prose will be more suited to dashes than will a Ph.D. thesis. Biblical exegesis and scholarly works will use more brackets than a novel.
Have fun with these, remember the rules, and you’ll be on your way to writing with both flair and clarity – an irresistible combination for great prose.
For our next Comedy Grammar post, we’ll focus on the other three interruptions: the comma, the semicolon, and the colon.
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