Parenthesis Definition

Parenthesis is a stylistic device that comes from a Greek word, meaning to place or alongside. Parenthesis is a qualifying or explanatory sentence, clause or word that writers insert into a paragraph or passage. However, if they leave it out, even then grammatically the it does not affect the text that is correct without it. Writers mark them off by round and square brackets or by commas, dashes, little lines and brackets. As far as its purpose is concerned, this verbal unit provides extra information, interrupts syntactic flow of words, and allows the readers to pay attention on explanation. However, the overuse of parenthesis may make sentences look ambiguous and poorly structured.

Parenthesis Examples from Literature

Example 1

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

(From “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop)

Bishop uses an abrupt excruciating parenthesis towards the end of the poem. For this, she uses brackets, for expressing understatement and for suggesting how to cope with losses through art by using “write it.”

Example 2

“It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself…”

(From “The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White)

The following style guidebook provides parenthetical information several times. Here you can see how author has explained the reader’s plight by giving descriptive sentence in brackets showing how readers are in trouble.

Example 3

“A little gravel alley, too small to be marked with a street sign but known in the neighborhood as Shilling Alley, wound hazardously around our property and on down, past an untidy sequence of back buildings (chicken houses, barns out of plumb, a gun shop, a small lumber mill, a shack where a blind man lived, and the enchanted grotto of a garage whose cement floors had been waxed to the luster of ebony by oil drippings…silver water so cold it made your front teeth throb) on down to Lancaster Avenue, the main street, where the trolley cars ran.”

(From “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood” by John Updike)

Look, the author has employed a detailed descriptive parenthesis in this passage. He explains in detail a sequence of untidy back buildings why they give such miserable look.

Example 4

“[I]n Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”

(From “The Horse and His Boy” by C.S. Lewis)

Lewis uses round brackets to describe the story, telling whether they are true or made up. He means to say people like to listen to a story, as they are not taught, whereas essays are taught. Hence, they seem boring.

Example 5

‘Black dog’ is the mood of bottomless, suicidal despair suffered, most notoriously, by Winston Churchill (himself a kind of bulldog in nappies, a logo for Empire; growling and dribbling, wheezing smoke, swollen veins fired with brandy).”

(From “Lights Out for the Territory” by Iain Sinclair)

In this essay, Sinclair gives the readers a unique, enlightened, provocative, disturbing and utterly daring picture of modern city life of London and its people. In the process, he reveals a dark underbelly of London, as you can see his provocative understatement and parenthetical information about Churchill.

Function of Parenthesis

Parenthesis makes the statements more convincing, as it puts the readers in a right form from the very beginning where they read it as an explanation. However, its main function is to give more explanation and add emphasis, while its repeated use can cause focus and thus makes parenthetical insertions as a dominant feature of a sentence. It also offers the readers an insight into true feelings and opinions of characters and narrators, while they might tend to evade parenthetical information as unimportant. Doing this, parenthesis could leave them clueless to the actual purpose of a sentence. In addition, often it creates humorous effect by using hyperbole and understatements.

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