Literacy Shorts: Parenthetical Dashes

Interesting fact: we get the plural noun parentheses from the original Greek word parentithenai, which roughly translates as ‘put in beside’.  Today, linguistically speaking, we use the term to describe both the additional information that is inserted into an already grammatically complete sentence and the punctuation marks used to contain that information.  In this bulletin, we’ll look at how dashes can be used to mark out parenthesised information.  Let’s look at a brief example:

Lord Byron – allegedly described by Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ – gained a scandalous  reputation whilst he was alive.

Here, the parenthetical dashes enclose additional information that helps to reinforce my bold assertion that Byron was a shady character.  So, that being the case, here’s the question: why use dashes and not, say, commas?  Well, using dashes, in this case at least, is preferable because they help to clarify the structure of the sentence. The same sentence, with the dashes removed and commas added, loses clarity because the commas are carrying out two different functions: the first and the third divide clauses, and the second separates two items in a list.  Here it is, written out again:

Lord Byron, allegedly  described by Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, gained a scandalous  reputation whilst he was alive.

Not (quite) as clear, right?  Anyway, let’s move away from my poor example and onto a much better one from a love letter written by King Henry VIII.  Here is it:

The physician in whom I have most confidence, is absent at the very time when he might do me the greatest pleasure; for I should hope, by him and his means, to obtain one of my chief joys on earth – that is the care of my mistress – yet for want of him I send you my second, and hope that he will soon make you well.

Love Letters of Henry VIIIThe extract above is taken from Letter Ninth that Henry wrote to Anne Boleyn.  In the letter, he expresses deep concern over her reported illness and  frustration at not being able to send over his most trusted physician to offer assistance.  Structurally, as you might well expect, the sentence is fittingly elaborate: Henry puts forward a number of different propositions and qualifications to Anne.  However, he has the good sense to use parenthetical dashes to add structural prominence to one clause above all the rest.  Henry clearly wants to signal to Anne that her good health – lest she might be unsure – is one of his ‘chief joys on earth’.  What a sensitive, romantic chap.  History has clearly judged him unfairly.

Here’s one more example, from Metamorphosis (originally Die Verwandlung), by Franz Kafka:

Gregor’s eyes turned next to the window, and the dull weather – raindrops could be heard beating on the metal window-ledge – made him feel quite melancholy.

Metamorphosis - Franz KafkaThe extract is taken from the opening of the story.  Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate protagonist, has just woken to find, rather remarkably, that he has metamorphosed into a monstrous insect.  Poor Gregor.  His first action is to look around his bedroom, whilst he contemplates the disturbing predicament in which he has inexplicably found himself.  He notices that the weather outside is grizzly: it’s a grey, rainy morning.  Here, the parenthetical dashes help to create the impression that a casual, impromptu observation has been made; they generate a sort of stream of consciousness effect.  So, one more question: why use dashes and not round brackets to enclose the information?  Well, to my mind, round brackets would convey a sense of planned formality that would be at odds with the absurdity of the situation.  Dashes help to create the impression of spontaneity.  So, in the extract above, Gregor’s spontaneously mundane observation highlights to us, the reader, that he is yet to fully understand the true horror of what has happened.  After all, he has just woken up…

More next week.  Thanks for reading.

TL;DR: Parenthetical dashes can help to add clarity and a sense of spontaneity to complex sentences.

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