Parenthetical Expressions

A parenthetical expression is a phrase or clause that’s inserted within—in effect, it interrupts—another phrase or clause. The larger structure is complete without the smaller structure, which could be an adverb clause, as in the following four examples, or an added comment or remark that has no syntactic function in the clause. I’ve italicized the parenthetical expressions, including the one in the first sentence in this paragraph. Note that the expressions are enclosed in (surrounded by) pairs of punctuation marks: commas or parentheses (round brackets), or dashes:

Strawberry jam, for instance, doesn’t make a good spaghetti sauce.

Uncle Charlie, when he was told about the escaped fleas, broke out in a blush.

Cobras, although they are essentially moody, like an occasional chuckle.

The tone of her letter, however, brought tears to Fang’s eyes.

It’s important to note that the commas that surround phrases and clauses that are inserted between backbone functions don’t violate the rule that no punctuation can separate subjects and finite verbs: the punctuation “belongs” to the parenthetical expression:

Fang, in fact, was furious.

But, of course, Miss Hiss was amused.

Jumbo, it seems, prefers peanuts in soy sauce.

Parentheses (or round brackets) set off material that is inserted as an explanation or comment. The idea is to add information rather quietly (a brief definition or comment, for example), so as not to distract the reader from the rest of the sentence:

Uncle Charlie (a reformed gargler) met Aunt Min (at that time a mouthwash therapist) at a poltergeists’ convention.

Charlie was looking for a dealership in rubber adverbs (used in very tight clauses), but he would have willingly fallen back on wooden appositives (a boon for the unimaginative essayist).

When I can’t think of any appropriate silly examples (for instance, after a strenuous evening with the Boa Brothers), I try standing on my head.

In the sentence about Uncle Charlie and Aunt Min, no punctuation follows either parenthesis because none would have been used without the parentheses. In the second and third sentences, the commas that would ordinarily follow adverbs and examples come after the closing parenthesis marks. The rule is that the expression in parentheses should come immediately after the structure it comments on, before any other punctuation.

A pair of dashes is used to emphasize parenthetical expressions more forcefully:

Monty the Python—a snake in the grass if I ever saw one—often pretends to have fang aches.

Orange-nosed attack frogs—there’s one on your shoulder now—defeat their enemies by sucking out their wits.

If I’m allowed to write a serious example sentence for once—I’ll probably be lynched for it—I’d say that it’s best to use dashes sparingly.

Jack was injured by a booby-trapped plum—or so he claims.

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26 Comments on “Parenthetical Expressions

  1. Your humor was great! My students didn’t get it at first, but once they did, they loved it. Which made them eager to continue with the lesson and the examples. You tricked them into becoming engaged in the learning process! 🙂 Thank you.

  2. Would you use commas to set off what would otherwise constitute a parenthetical expression when it tends to be a “continuation” as oppose to an “interruption.” Example:

    Continuation: We therefore need to leave early.

    Interruption: We need, therefore, to leave early.

    • Hi, James,

      I apologize for such a long delay in responding to your query: the site was hacked and was only recently put to rights.

      You’ve punctuated correctly of course. I see I never covered this situation (in Restrictive and Non-restrictive Modifiers) and the options are rather fuzzy in my mind. It seems to be a matter of rhythm: if this kind of adverb comes directly before the verb it modifies, there’s no punctuation, as you say, the rhythm is continuous. Anywhere else in the sentence there’s a pause. In both cases the adverb refers in meaning to a previous sentence, such as It will snow tomorrow.

      Ron 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for this absorbing and witty lesson. I am sure I will visit your page often.
    I was always confused about the use of parentheses and you have cleared that up for me.

  4. What if you say:

    Jack — and his friend Jill — goes up the hill.

    Fear — and the anxiety it arouses — is driving a lot of Trump’s support.

    Should these be singular or plural — “goes” or “go,” “are” or “is”? And why?

    Thank you!

    • I have the same question. When phrases are inside dashes, as in Jane’s examples, do they affect the number (singular or plural) of the subject? Simply put, does “is” become “are” when a parenthetical phrase follows a singular subject?

  5. There’s one sentence by Aldous Huxley that says,”In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank, richly clotted life.” How to understand “west or east” here, are they adjectives or adverbs or what? Thanks.

  6. thanks for the explaining but Im confusing i want simply examples about the different between parenthetical and nonparathetical

    • Hi, Mohammed, I must suggest you reread the examples in the section on parenthetical expressions. The non-parenthetical is the main thing you want to say, the parenthetical is what you might say in addition to the main thing, but is not necessary and could be left out altogether. Regards, Dr Ron

  7. Great article and fun explanation!
    I have the same question as Jane and Archer about whether the items inside the parenthetical phrase affect the verb form, turning it from singular to plural.

  8. I often use parenthetical constructions with no difficulty. Occasionally, though, I run into a subject/verb agreement problem where nothing sounds right.

    Example – – –

    I start with: “No one is fooled by this language.”

    Then I want to emphasize that the police in particular are not fooled, so I add it parenthetically and get: “No one, especially the police, is fooled by this language.”

    Now, this *sounds* odd when I first write it. “No one” takes a singular verb, while “the police” takes a plural. Because “the police” is right next to the verb, and on its own would take a plural verb, my brain pops up a red flag (i.e. it “sounds funny”).

    So I usually devise a workaround: “No one is fooled by this language. The police, certainly, are not taken in.”

    Hmmm. After writing, rewriting and editing this comment I am now reading the problematic sentence so fluidly that it *sounds* correct and I wonder why I am writing this comment. I probably had to read the sentence a dozen times before the phrase submerged and allowed the noun to ‘reach over’ it in search of a verb.

    Is this a type of parenthetical expression with a name? These are in the nature of asides that merely make explicit what is strictly implied by the subject noun.

    Hmmm. There are other parenthetical expressions that also do not affect whether the verb should be singular or plural, but are not implied. For example: “The boss, along with three employees, is leaving early.”

    … Oh, dear. I think I could go on and on generating grammatical intuitions I can’t explain. My brain seems to be smarter than I am (… but sometimes dumber, too). 🙂

  9. Great article. Thank you for posting. I have a related question that, I think, involves parentheticals and also the use of whomever vs. whoever. In the below sentence, should the writer use whomever or whoever and why?

    Reagan supporters are not going to vote for him vs vote against Carter (or WHOEVER the candidate is).

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