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Grammar Lesson: Use of Commas in parentheticals

Our grammar lesson today is courtesy of Greg Walker, my favorite person with whom to discuss (and argue about) grammar. Enjoy, and feel free to comment with any questions!

Commas are the bane of many writers and grammarians, for a variety of reasons. First of all, someone in first grade said, “Commas indicate pauses in speech.” I do not know why they said this, as it is wrong on every level, but they have been introducing commas this way since Chaucer was learning his letters.

Later, someone told most of us to avoid commas. It was not, in fact, that they wanted us to avoid their prudent use, but they did not want us to overuse them, as is common. As a result of the desire to avoid comma usage altogether, we drift to a couple of typical errors:

  • The misuse of parentheses, a punctuation that should be avoided in most cases in formal writing, and
  • The gross misuse of the dash, a punctuation that should be used prudently and rarely, and always correctly.

Both of these errors are made because the writers are not secure with the nature of parenthetical phrases, or “interrupters”, and how to punctuate them correctly. So from today forward, you are going to be among that elite cadre professional grammarians who can manage parenthetical phrases with aplomb. Here are some pointers:

There are two basic forms of parenthetical phrase: the introductory element and the interrupter. The underlined phrases are those that constitute the parenthetical phrase.

Use a comma to set off the introductory element, such as, “After Mrs. Pontellier fed her husband on truffled pheasants, she dispatched him with a poisoned flan.” The point of the whole sentence is that Mrs. Pontellier offed her hubby with a poisoned flan. The opening description of his main course is a bit of additional detail, but it is in addition to the main sentence.

Another example of the introductory element is, “’Well, I hope you’re happy,’ she said in a manner that caused him to doubt her sincerity.” In this case, we have a sentence within a sentence. The introductory element here is “well” at the beginning of the sub-sentence because it does not contribute to the thought in any sense and it is superfluous to the sentence.

The parenthetical phrase in mid-sentence is often called an interrupter. These are items that could be placed in parentheses, but it is generally considered better form to separate them out with commas.

An example of an interrupter is, “The spooky twins, Lydia and Margot Renault, played duets on the piano in the study.” The sentence proper is just, “The spooky twins played duets on the piano in the study.” The secondary identification of the twins by their names is superfluous to the sentence, and is therefore separated by commas. It is a common error to omit the second comma, the one after the interrupter, but both are necessary.





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