• When using a parenthetical is necessary in a sentence

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    Jose A. Carillo

    Jose A. Carillo

    Here’s a very interesting grammar question posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by a member who goes by the username Miss Mae:

    “Is the parenthetical necessary in the sentence below from a government web portal?

    “‘For all its contradictions—maybe even because of them—the region has something for everyone.’”

    My reply to Miss Mae:
    Before taking up your question, let’s clarify first what a parenthetical is.

    By definition, 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.

    The most basic parenthetical is one that’s set off from the sentence by a pair of commas, like this one: “Jose Rizal, who was the seventh of 11 children, was born in 1861 to a prosperous haciendero couple in the Philippines.” Here, the parenthetical is the nonrestrictive relative clause “who was the seventh of 11 children.” Recall that a nonrestrictive clause provides information that’s not absolutely needed to understand the sentence; in other words, it is nondefining information. Thus, the sentence will remain grammatically and semantically intact even without it: “Jose Rizal was born in 1861 to a prosperous haciendero couple in the Philippines.”

    A second type of parenthetical is one that’s set off from the sentence by a pair of dashes, as in the sentence you presented: “For all its contradictions—maybe even because of them—the region has something for everyone.” Here, the pair of dashes folds into the main sentence this subordinate idea, “maybe even because of them.” The pair or dashes provides a much stronger break in the thought or structure of the sentence than that provided by a pair of enclosing commas.

    Such parentheticals won’t work when punctuated by a pair of commas instead of a pair of dashes: “For all its contradictions, maybe even because of them, the region has something for everyone.” What we have here is a run-on sentence—a comma splice—because the pauses provided by the pair of commas are much too brief to indicate the sudden shift from the major developing thought to the subordinate idea.

    This brings us to the third kind of parenthetical, one that’s set off from the sentence by the curved marks we know as the parenthesis. The question, though, is if the punctuation provided by the parenthesis will work in the sentence you provided. Let’s see: “For all its contradictions (maybe even because of them), the region has something for everyone.” Well, the sentence obviously remains grammatically airtight, but the use of parenthesis instead of dashes clearly implies that the writer or speaker doesn’t attach as much importance to the qualifying idea as he would when he uses double dashes instead.

    Now we are ready to answer the question you asked at the outset: Is the parenthetical necessary in that sentence?

    It really all depends on the writer’s intention or style. By using the pair of dashes as punctuation, the writer evidently wanted to dramatize the alternative or contrasting idea expressed by the phrase “maybe even because of them.” But note that the writer could as well have chosen to be just matter-of-fact about that alternative by using the conjunction “or” to indicate it, as follows: “For all its contradictions or maybe even because of them, the region has something for everyone.”

    This time we find it’s not absolutely necessary to use the phrase “maybe even because of them” as a parenthetical after all.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

    j8carillo@yahoo.com

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