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Author Topic: A unified approach to the use of punctuation in English – Part III  (Read 5771 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: October 01, 2010, 11:53:52 PM »

As with all the alphabet-based languages, English is primarily dependent on word choices and their combinations for the successful delivery of ideas. In written form, however, English would be so clunky and insufferably confusing without the benefit of punctuation. Whether short or long, in fact, what makes sentences and expositions in English eminently readable and understandable is their proper use of punctuation marks—whether the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, parenthesis, or period—to clarify meaning and set off boundaries between structural units of the sentence.

But precisely when do we use each of these punctuation marks in our sentences and expositions? And in particular, which of the punctuation marks do we use to set off a parenthetical—by definition, any inserted amplifying or explanatory word, phrase, or sentence—from a main sentence?

In “The parenthesis and its uses,” a six-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, I attempted to come up with a unified answer to all of these questions. I did so in the course of explaining the various grammatical and structural considerations involved in punctuating parentheticals. I posted the first part of those wide-ranging discussions in last week’s edition of the Forum; this time I am posting the second of the three-part series (October 2, 2010).

The parenthesis and its uses: parenthesis by dashes and parenthesis by parentheses

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 aren’t 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 and adequately 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—perhaps simply an aside—or contextually necessary; 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 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.

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.” Note, though, that when parentheses are used, the implication is that the writer doesn’t attach as much importance to the qualifying idea as he would when he uses 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 a 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.”

Now that I’m done discussing the parenthesis by parentheses, I would like to take this opportunity to make a clear distinction between parentheses and brackets in American English. As I’ve earlier discussed, parentheses—sometimes called “round brackets”—are meant to convey to the reader that (1) the idea in the parenthetical isn’t really crucial to the sentence, and that (2) the writer doesn’t attach as much importance to the qualifying idea as he would when he sets them off with double dashes instead.

In contrast, brackets—also known as “square brackets”—are for more specialized uses, particularly for (1) inserting information or authorial comment into direct quotations, (2) inserting translations of quoted statements said in another language, (3) citing errors within quoted statements, and (4) setting off a parenthetical that’s already set off by parentheses in the sentence.

Precisely when is bracket Usage #1 called for? Assume that we are quoting verbatim a passage from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quijote in reference to Dulcinea, his imagined Empress of La Mancha. Let’s say that the passage uses only pronouns to refer to Dulcinea, and we know that it isn’t permissible to alter exact quotes from a literary work. We then have to use brackets to insert information identifying Dulcinea for our readers: “‘If I were to show her [Dulcinea, his imagined Empress of La Mancha] to you,’ answered Don Quijote, ‘what merit would there be in acknowledging a truth so manifest to all? The important point is that you should believe, confess, affirm, swear, and defend it without setting eyes on her.’”

As for bracket Usage #2, a publication in a particular language, say English, will need brackets to insert translations of quoted statements said in another language, say Tagalog, as in the following passage from a business magazine: “‘Hindi lang kulang, kapos na kapos talaga [It’s been not only short but way, way below our needs],’ she says of the family’s finances.’”

Bracket Usage #3 is called for when we have to cite errors in quoted statements, as in this example: “Our confused physics teacher said, ‘While eating an apple in a bathtub, Isaac Newton [by traditional accounts it was actually Archimedes] shouted “Eureka!” when he discovered the basic principle of hydrostatics.’”

Finally, we may need to take recourse to bracket Usage #4 to set off a parenthetical that’s already set off by parentheses, as in this example: “The life of Marcus Tullius Cicero (who wrote three major philosophical studies [On the Orator, On the Republic, and On the Laws] at a time that he still couldn’t engage in politics) coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic.” Such usage isn’t a pretty sight, but there are times when scholarly exactitude demands it.

This ends the three-part series on the parenthesis and its uses.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 9 and February 16, 2008, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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