Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Parentheses vs. em-dashes and commas

The text describes the use of parentheses for including additional information or enclosing asides (p. 149). On p. 151 em-dashes within a sentence are shown to describe “an abrupt change of thought.” The second em-dash example: “Everyone in the class—students and teachers—appreciated the joke” suggests that commas could be used instead because the students and teachers phrase explained the previous statement. Isn’t this including additional information, so technically couldn’t parentheses also be used?

Is there a standard such as using em-dashes within dialogue sentences and using parentheses within text? Is the choice of using parentheses/em-dashes/commas dictated by the editor’s style guide or is one option more preferable? I guess I'm just a little unsure about how the choice of specific punctuation can change the meaning or emphasis of a sentence.

(Sorry if this was already discussed Friday!)


Sarah said...

i agree with you that when to use what is confusing. i was taught that enclosing something within commas means the information is non-essential. think of the commas as two little hooks: if you lifted the hooks, the words inside them would be lifted out of the sentence but the sentence would still make sense. for em-dashes, the same is sorta true. the only difference is the idea enclosed within the dashes doesn't really relate to the words preceding or coming after the dashes. in your example, "students and teachers" comes after "class." had the phrase come after "everyone," commas would work. but because "students and teachers" is far removed from what it is modifying, em-dashes are more appropriate. as for parenthesis, the explanation here is helpful: http://changingminds.org/techniques/language/punctuation/parentheses.htm

i hope this helps and wasn't too long a comment!

Pat said...

Thank you, Sarah; that is very helpful.

There are also technical uses of parentheses; here are examples from my dictionary (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 2001) that illustrate these and other uses:

1. Ar•go•naut n. 2. (sometimes l.c.) a person in quest of something dangerous but rewarding; adventurer.

2. Entries that would normally be italicized in print (or underlined in writing or typing)—such as foreign words and phrases not yet assimilated into English, book titles, and names of ships—are shown in boldface italics rather than the usual boldface roman type.

3. Entry forms are primarily divided phonetically—that is, after the vowel for open syllables (where the vowel is either long or unstressed) and after the consonant for short syllables (where the vowel is short and stressed).

4. NATO n. a military alliance of Western nations for the purpose of collective defense. [N(orth) A(tlantic) T(reaty) O(rganization)]

5. For every term defined in the dictionary, the reader can typically find the meaning(s) of the term, with the most common senses listed first.

6. Such a verb construction (for example, take over, put up with, or eat out) forms a single vocabulary unit with a meaning that is often not predictable from the sum of its parts.

7. Robinson n. 1. Edward G. (Emanuel Goldenberg), 1893–1973, U.S. actor, born in Romania.… 3. Jack Roosevelt (Jackie), 1919–72, U.S. baseball player. 4. Ray (Walker Smith) ("Sugar Ray"), 1921–89, U.S. boxer.

And so forth; I'm sure the dictionary has other examples in addition to these.

If you look at these examples carefully, you'll see that each represents a different way to use parentheses. Also note the following: in some cases, the punctuation mark you use is dictated by the surrounding marks, as in ex. 4.

Ritchie Mae said...

I still don't understand when to use one over the others.

I could have written:
Such a verb construction—for example, take over, put up with, or eat out—forms a single vocabulary unit with a meaning that is often not predictable from the sum of its parts.

Pat said...

Yes, that's true; you could have. Sometimes, you have more than one option.