Grammar: Parenthetical Elements

Posted December 13, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Grammar Explanations, Self-Editing, Writing

Oh, baby, set that mood… Okay, okay, seriously, the choices you make in punctuating parenthetical text can set a mood, create an effect in the text, clarify intent. It gives you the opportunity to place the focus where you want it.

Em dashes make that nonessential text seem very important. It places an emphasis — almost an exclamation mark — to draw your attention. Commas are much more casual, as if this phrase is simply part of the conversation, and don’t pull at the reader’s attention. Parentheses are quiet (keeping a lid on things) and indicate that the information isn’t that important.

It is a bit crazy that parenthetical text can result in whole phrases being set aside as nonessential. I find that most parenthetical text, while considered nonessential to the sentence, does help in creating that rich atmosphere I love so well. Hmmm, does that make it essential text then? And those bloody coordinating conjunctions can really throw a spanner in the works as it forces you to examine your sentence for whether it’s composed of two independent clauses or one indy and a dependent — almost sounds like a game of cards, doesn’t it?

Yet, to ignore the comma (the most common punctuation for parenthetical text) is to force your readers to work harder at figuring out what you’re saying.

If you don’t care if you have repeat readers, i.e., buyers of your books, then ignore the parenthetical text, hoard those commas.

Grammar Explanations is…

…an evolving list of the structural rules and principles that determines where words are placed in phrases or sentences as well as how the language is spoken. Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone on an area of grammar with which you struggle or on which you can contribute more understanding.

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Parenthetical Text
A.k.a.: Also referred to as a parenthetical element, an aside, added information, and another term for interrupter.
Definition: Text that will not change the essential meaning of a sentence if it were removed. It is set off within the sentence as though it were in parentheses using commas, em dashes, or parentheses.

Each choice carries a degree of importance: em dashes are the most emphatic; commas are casual, just part of the conversation, and parentheses generally indicate that the information isn’t that important.

Other Parts of Grammar That are Parenthetical:

And, of course, there is that punctuation issue with cities and their geographic locations, which are also treated as parenthetical elements.

Legend with parenthetical text marked in green

  1. Green indicates the parenthetical text

The president’s schedule, timed to the minute, can be changed.

The private university, well-funded for decades, is experiencing a budget crisis.

Vampires are depicted as gorgeous — yet deadly — in movies today.

Helene (such a mouse all those years) suddenly decided to open her own business.

Exceptions include:
Well, it just wouldn’t be English if we didn’t have exceptions…

Rule: Use commas and treat a coordinating conjunction as a parenthetical element if it is used to connect two independent clauses.


  1. Yellow indicates the independent clauses
  2. Green indicates the coordinating conjunctions

The Red Sox were leading the league at the end of May, but of course, they always do well in the spring.

The Yankees didn’t do so well in the early going, but frankly, everyone expects them to win the season.

The Tigers spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, and even though they picked up several promising rookies, they expect to be there again next year.

Examples are from Capital Community College Guide to Grammar & Writing who credits William Strunk and his Elements of Style with the definition.

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