Author Topic: A grammar conversation on parenthetical usage  (Read 17459 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4676
  • Karma: +210/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
A grammar conversation on parenthetical usage
« on: September 17, 2010, 08:17:38 PM »
What’s the proper punctuation mark to use for parentheticals*? Quite often a pair of commas will do, but there are grammatical situations where commas simply prove inadequate to the task, resulting in structurally flawed sentences with a subject-verb disagreement error or a dangling or misplaced modifier.



About the matter of punctuating parentheticals, let me share with you an e-mail conversation I just had with a friend, Palanca Awards Hall of Famer Ed Maranan:

Ed:
Joe, here’s a line from one of my children’s stories:
 
“Those words seemed to have an effect on the boy, whose interest in his little birthday gift—and yes, pride in his grandpa—were growing by the minute.”
 
Am I right in seeing more than one subject in the subordinate clause which calls for a plural form verb, or does the word “interest” subsume the rest of the clause and thus call for a singular verb?

Me:
The operative subject in the subordinate clause is definitely the singular noun “interest.” The subject “pride” in the parenthetical “and yes, pride in his grandpa” doesn’t compound the operative subject (a parenthetical being an optional grammatical element), so “interest” is the only operative subject in that subordinate clause. We therefore have a subject-verb disagreement error here because the sentence uses the plural verb “were” for the singular noun “interest.”

Ed:
Aha, but if I were to construct the sentence in this manner:
 
“Those words seemed to have an effect on the boy, whose interest in his little birthday gift and yes, pride in his grandpa were growing by the minute.”
 
...would the sentence with the plural “were” now be correct?

Me:
Yes, definitely! It would greatly clarify matters, though, if the word “yes” is preceded by a comma to make it a full-fledged interruptive. Otherwise, some readers might misconstrue the whole clause “pride in his grandpa were growing by the minute” itself to be the interruptive.

Ed:
Just a follow-up. Look at these two constructions:
 
1. “Those words seemed to have an effect on the boy, whose interest in his little birthday gift and, yes, pride in his grandpa were growing by the minute.”

2. “Those words seemed to have an effect on the boy, whose interest in his little
birthday gift and yes, pride in his grandpa, were growing by the minute.”
 
The first is your suggested placement of the comma—before “yes.” What if the comma were placed after grandpa? And here’s still another possible construction:
 
3. “Those words seemed to have an effect on the boy, whose interest in his little birthday gift and, yes, pride in his grandpa, were growing by the minute.”
 
Three commas in all. Would this not more fully solve the problem of ambiguity and observe the rule of agreement? You said that without the comma before “yes,” readers might misconstrue “(and yes,) pride in his grandpa were growing by the minute” as the interruptive, with a faulty agreement, but this would not be the case because “whose interest in his little birthday gift” would then be a lost, dangling paraphrase without a verb, would it not?

Me:
I think the use of more commas to resolve the ambiguity in that construction just adds more grammatical and structural wrinkles to the sentence. In Sentence #2, in particular, putting a comma after “grandpa” detaches the interruptive “yes, pride in his grandpa” from the main sentence and makes the plural verb form “were growing” erroneous.

Sentence #3 is better than Sentence #2 in that it provides a comma before “yes,” thus making it a full-fledged interruptive separate from the parenthetical “pride in his grandpa.” However, both sentences suffer from the same subject-verb disagreement error.

We can make that error disappear by simply using a pair of dashes instead of commas to set off the parenthetical from the rest of the sentence:
   
“Those words seemed to have an effect on the boy, whose interest in his little birthday gift—and, yes, pride in his grandpa—was growing by the minute.”

Here, the pair of dashes provides a much stronger break in the thought and structure of the sentence and this prevents the parenthetical from messing up the sentence grammatically. (2010)

My friend Edgar B. Maranan (November 7, 1946 – May 8, 2018) was a prolific poet, essayist, fictionist, playwright, writer of children’s stories, and translator. He won a total of 30 Carlos Palanca literary prizes for his works in English and Filipino and was inducted into the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Hall of Fame in 2000.
----
*For those encountering the term for the first time, a parenthetical is any amplifying or explanatory word, phrase, or sentence that’s set off from a sentence by some form of punctuation. Its distinguishing characteristic is that the sentence remains grammatically correct even without it, but it isn’t necessarily optional or semantically expendable. It may be needed to put the statement in a desired context, to establish the logic of the sentence, or to convey a particular tone or mood for the statement. Whether it’s optional or necessary largely depends on the kind of punctuation chosen for it.

FURTHER READING:
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 discussed the various grammatical and structural considerations involved in punctuating parentheticals. The wide-ranging discussions about punctuation in those essays should prove instructive to Forum members, so I have reconstituted the six essays into three parts for consecutive posting in the Forum.

NOTE: For new Forum members and Facebook friends, I'll run the six essays in three installments here in the Forum next week: on October 16 (Monday), 18 (Wednesday), and 20 (Friday), 2017. Watch for the series!
« Last Edit: April 10, 2024, 02:16:11 PM by Joe Carillo »