Grammar Tip: Parenthetical Content

Grammar Tip: Parenthetical Content

Written by

Texas Bar Books Staff

Image

Share this Post

Let our own editor, Roger Siebert, guide you on parenthetical content.

Parenthetical content is a word, phrase, or sentence that functions as an aside, briefly departing from the main discourse. The punctuation normally used to separate parenthetical content from the main text is, of course, parentheses, but parenthetical commas or em dashes may also be used.

Setting off text with parentheses usually de-emphasizes it, setting off text with commas usually carries neutral emphasis, and setting off text with em dashes usually emphasizes it:

  • John brought a stray dog (a bull terrier) to grandma’s house.
  • John brought a stray dog, a bull terrier, to grandma’s house.
  • John brought a stray dog—a bull terrier—to grandma’s house.

When parenthetical text falls at the end of a sentence, omit the closing parenthetical comma or em dash, but include the closing parenthesis:

  • John brought home a stray dog (a bull terrier).
  • John brought home a stray dog, a bull terrier.
  • John brought home a stray dog—a bull terrier.

Note that, as with the comma, parentheses and the em dash have uses other than just setting off parenthetical content. I won’t get into all of that here.

As a general rule, parenthetical text shouldn’t influence the syntax of the sentence that the parenthetical text interrupts. Try temporarily omitting the parenthetical content until you’re happy with the sentence’s grammar, and then reinsert the parenthetical content:

  • John’s family adores his latest stray dog.
  • John’s family (Bill, Jane, and grandma) adores his latest stray dog.

If a sentence seems awkward after reinserting the parenthetical content, it’ll probably seem awkward to your reader too:

  • John’s child—and the children next door—adores his latest stray dog.

Rewriting might be in order:

  • The children next door seem to adore John’s latest stray dog as much as his son does.

Of course, how you rewrite the sentence depends on exactly what you’re trying to convey and what part you want to have focus.

About em dashes: An em dash is longer than a hyphen or an en dash. Of the three, the hyphen is the shortest. The en dash is about the width of the uppercase letter N, and the em dash is about the width of the uppercase letter M. If the software you’re using doesn’t include special characters such as the em dash, one solution is to use a pair of hyphens instead, although there is the risk of lines breaking between the two hyphens.

Whether you set your em dash with a space on each side is up to you. Both “a stray dog—a bull terrier” and “a stray dog — a bull terrier” are acceptable, but strive for consistency throughout any given work. If the software you’re using doesn’t allow lines to break immediately before or after em dashes that don’t have the surrounding spaces, the readability will probably benefit from including the surrounding spaces. If you include the spaces, you could also get away with using a single hyphen (“a stray dog – a bull terrier”) to avoid having the line break between the two hyphens.

Parenthesis versus parentheses: The singular parenthesis (note the -is ending) refers to a single mark, either an opening or a closing parenthesis. The plural parentheses refers to more than one parenthesis. This follows the same pattern as the singular crisis and plural crises, the singular hypothesis and plural hypotheses, and so on.


Roger Siebert has been an editor with Texas Bar Books for fifteen years and has an MA in Creative Writing from Florida State University.

Recent Posts

Grammar Tip: Hyphenating Compound Adjectives

Grammar Tip: Hyphenating Compound Adjectives

Hyphens play a wide variety of roles in written English. One of those roles is to add clarity to compound...
Texas Criminal Pattern Jury Charges—Crimes against Persons and Property Special Supplement Released

Texas Criminal Pattern Jury Charges—Crimes against Persons and Property Special Supplement Released

The Texas Criminal Pattern Jury Charges—Crimes against Persons and Property special supplement, affecting CPJC 91.8 (Lesser Included Offense Analysis and...
Attention: Download Your New Version of Guardianship Alternatives

Attention: Download Your New Version of Guardianship Alternatives

In August 2021, the Guardianship Alternatives digital download was updated.
Now Available! Annotated Texas Family Code, 2021 Edition

Now Available! Annotated Texas Family Code, 2021 Edition

The 2021 edition of Annotated Texas Family Code, a joint project of the Family Law Section of the State Bar...
New from Texas Bar Books! The Texas Deceptive Trade Practice Act Reference Card

New from Texas Bar Books! The Texas Deceptive Trade Practice Act Reference Card

Quickly get the support you need with this convenient trifold guide.