Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

What punctuation you choose to use and where you choose to use it can have just as much of an impact on the meaning or interpretation of a sentence as the actual words being written (or said). Today, we’re taking a look at three different ways that you can add a little more to your sentence. The topic was suggested by Jim in an earlier Grammar 101 post where he asked about the difference between using parentheses, commas and em dashes.

Parentheses Offer Supplemental Information

One way that you can think about these types of punctuation is to place them on a spectrum. Starting at one end, we find that the content contained within parentheses is generally “bonus” or “extra” information. This adds to the sentence, but the removal of the portion within the parentheses will have minimal impact on the overall meaning or intent of the sentence.

I like the roll dips (sometimes called spring rolls) at Happy Pho.

Saying that roll dips may also be referred to as spring rolls adds some clarification to the sentence, but it wasn’t really all that necessary. The emphasis is not at all on this “bonus” fact.

Commas Integrate with the Sentence

I’ve written before about how to use commas and how different placements can dramatically alter the meaning of a sentence. In the context of supplementary information, the content contained within the commas is perceived as having greater value than if it were contained in parentheses.

Hayao Miyazaki, the visionary behind Kiki’s Delivery Service and other great Studio Ghibli films, announced his retirement on September 6, 2013.

The part about being involved with Studio Ghibli is on almost equal footing as the main part of the sentence. It is a stylistic choice to give that kind of emphasis, as an argument can be made to put that portion in parentheses instead or even to break this up into two separate sentences. You might even flip the structure entirely.

Hayao Miyazaki, who announced his retirement on September 6, 2013, is the visionary behind Kiki’s Delivery Service and other great Studio Ghibli films

How the sentence is put together and in what order can profoundly alter how the sentence is perceived by the reader. In general, you may find commas favored over parentheses in more formal contexts like news reporting.

Em Dashes Emphasize the Extra

Content contained within parentheses is seen as a bonus and content contained within commas is on more of an equal footing. At the other end of the spectrum, we have em dashes. With em dashes, we are drawing more attention to this interruption and placing more emphasis on this “extra” information.

Beyond the Margins–my first self-published book–is available on Amazon.

If I were to structure the sentence as above, then I would be placing greater emphasis on the fact that this is my first self-published book than if I were to offset that information in parentheses or commas. This brings a little more drama to the sentence. If I wanted to be a little more modest, I could use commas instead.

Choosing for Clarity Too

The “spectrum” model for understanding parentheses, commas and em dashes is just one way to go about it.

For a lot of writing, you won’t necessarily be faulted for choosing one over the others, because there may not be just one “correct” answer. It depends on style and how much emphasis you want to place on that extra information. It should also be noted that both commas and em dashes can be used as single units, while parentheses must always be used in pairs. An em dash on its own is similar, in some ways, to a semicolon.

While style is important, you also want to make sure that your sentence is as clear as possible. Take this example:

Benelux, which includes Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, is treated like one “country” by Eurail.

The portion contained within the commas (“which includes Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg”) contains commas itself. This isn’t wrong, but especially with the inclusion of the Oxford comma, the sentence can look a little messy. To overcome this, you might switch out the enclosing commas with em dashes.

Benelux–which includes Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg–is treated like one “country” by Eurail.

Parentheses could be used here to achieve a similar kind of clarity, but for my part, em dashes just feel right. And now we’re back to personal preference and style again. That’s what “good writing” is really all about.