Parenthetical Expression Types and Usage

A parenthetical expression is extra information added to a sentence or question that clarifies, explains or adds information without changing the basic meaning. Think of it as an aside providing readers with helpful information that they don’t absolutely have to have, but that is helpful to them. 

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Punctuating Parenthetical Expressions

A parenthetical expression is also referred to as a parenthetical phrase. These expressions require punctuation marks. Parentheses can be used, but they are not the only option. Commas are actually the most common form of punctuation used with parenthetical phrases. 

Punctuating a Parenthetical Phrase Mid-Sentence

When these phrases are interjected between other parts of a sentence, they are usually punctuated by surrounding them with commas, parentheses or em dashes (—)

  • I am looking forward to taking a cruise, on a brand new ship this time, with my family. 

  • The sun is shining today (unlike the last five days), so it is really beautiful outside. 

  • The regulations were updated — because the law changed — to require training every two years. 

Punctuating a Parenthetical Phrase at the End or Beginning

When a parenthetical phrase appears at the beginning or end of a sentence, it would be punctuated with a single comma or em dash. 

  • Of course, I already went to the store. 

  • Yes, I will help you — absolutely

  • Certainly, you can expect on-time delivery. 

Five Types of Parenthetical Expressions

It’s important to understand the main types of parenthetical expressions used in writing. Those who write need to know how to use them properly, while others need to know how to interpret writing that includes these phrases. 

Common Expressions

People often add non-essential common expressions to a sentence or question for emphasis. 

  • She is by the way from out of state. 

  • High sugar foods like candy, for example, have little nutritional value. 

  • I will (of course) return your sweater next week. 

Contrasting Expressions

People sometimes use a non-essential phrase to emphasize that one group is included and another is not. 

  • The girls in my class — not the boys — were gossiping about the new student. 

  • Food in Louisiana, not the other southern states, seems to all be very spicy. 

  • I traveled north (not south) in order to get to the rendezvous point 

Conjunctive Adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs are used to join together other groups of words or to modify other words, such as verbs, nouns or other adverbs. These words and phrases sometimes (but not always) function as parenthetical expressions.

  • Above all, what matters is that every person exercises the right to vote. 

  • The students in my class, however, will not have homework during the fall break. 

  • She is, accordingly, going to have to face the consequences of her actions. 

Appositives

An appositive is a type of rhetorical device that involves using a noun or noun phrase to add detail about another noun that is referenced in the essential part of a sentence or question. Appositives are used to further describe another noun. 

  • My new puppy — a chocolate lab is extremely active. 

  • Stan helped me move my desk, an enormous piece of furniture, upstairs. 

  • I cut a slice of pie (a giant chunk) to eat while the kids are outside. 

Direct Address

When directly addressing someone, a speaker might interject the person’s name or another target to emphasize that a particular individual is the intended target of the message. This represents a type of parenthetical expression. 

  • I need you, Susie, to make sure that Kim is properly trained on the new software.  

  • If you don’t listen to me, young lady, you are going to find yourself in big trouble. 

  • When you talk to your grandmother, son, you need to use a respectful tone. 

Proper Usage: Parenthetical Expression or Not?

The key to determining whether a group of words is a parenthetical phrase lies with determining whether it is essential to convey the basic meaning or not. If the group of words is essential to the sentence, then it should not be punctuated as a parenthetical phrase. If it is not essential to the meaning, then parenthetical punctuation is required. 

Essential Example

Consider the use of the phrase “itching and scratching” in this context: 

I’m worried because my dog keeps itching and scratching through the night. 

Here, the phrase “itching and scratching” is necessary to convey the meaning of the sentence.

  • If you removed the phrase from the sentence, it would be incomplete and it would not make sense. 

  • Because the phrase is a required part of the sentence, no special punctuation should be used. 

Non-Essential Example

Consider the use of the phrase “itching and scratching” in this context: 

My dog kept me up all night (itching and scratching), so I didn’t sleep much. 

Here, the phrase “itching and scratching” is not essential. 

  • If the phrase was removed from the sentence, the basic meaning would not change. It adds information to the statement, but doesn’t alter the meaning. 

  • The reader would still know that the person’s dog did something that kept them from sleeping. They just wouldn’t know exactly what action of the dog led to the person’s lack of sleep.

  • Because this phrase is not essential to the sentence, it is a parenthetical expression and should be offset by parentheses, commas or em dashes. 

Quiz Questions to Test Your Knowledge

Test your knowledge of parenthetical phrases and expressions by selecting the correctly punctuated sentence from the pairs of phrases below. Work through all of the items on your own before checking your answers. 

Parenthetical Expression Worksheet Questions

Select the correct answer for each item. 

  1. Which of the following statements is punctuated correctly?

    a. The new student in my class who moved here from North Carolina is very nice. 

    b. The new student in my class, who moved here from North Carolina, is very nice. 

  2. Which of the following statements is punctuated correctly?

    a. I love all kinds of fruit pie apple, cherry, lemon, key lime and could eat it for dessert every day. 

    b I love all kinds of fruit pie — apple, cherry, lemon, key lime — and could eat it for dessert every day. 

  3. Which of the following statements is punctuated correctly?

    a. Young man you should respond when you hear me calling your name. 

    b. Young man, you should respond when you hear me calling your name. 

  4. Which of the following statements is punctuated correctly?

    a. You can, of course, count on me to meet the deadline. 

    b. You can of course count on me to meet the deadline. 

  5. Which of the following statements is punctuated correctly?

    a. The houses in our neighborhood, but not the one across the highway, are covered in Halloween decorations. 

    b. The houses in our neighborhood but not the one across the highway are covered in Halloween decorations. 

Answer Key

Check your work against the correct answers. 

  1. b

  2. b

  3. b

  4. a

  5. a

Expand Your Expertise

Now that you are aware of the different types of parenthetical expressions and how to properly use them, expand your expertise working with them so you can incorporate these word groupings into your writing with confidence. Start by reviewing more in-depth guidelines for when and how to use parentheses correctly.

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