Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Parentheses vs. Em Dashes

I have an inordinate fondness for—some might say obsession with—intrusions. Not physical ones. I don’t get into breaking down doors or smashing windows. I’m not talking B&E here. I mean written ones, like the one in the first sentence in this post. That clause in the parentheses is an intrusion. Why did I choose em dashes over… [Read More]

When to use parentheses vs. commas by Karen Conlin for

I have an inordinate fondness for—some might say obsession with—intrusions. Not physical ones. I don't get into breaking down doors or smashing windows. I'm not talking B&E here. I mean written ones, like the one in the first sentence in this post. That clause in the parentheses is an intrusion. Why did I choose em dashes over parentheses?

How to Intrude with Style

When to use parentheses vs. commas by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comTo me, it feels more connected to the sentence it’s intruding on than it might if I worded it differently, so I set it off with ems. There's a sense of "setting aside," but not as far to the side as it could be. I can’t quantify it, I’m sorry to admit. It’s a sensibility, one of those things one develops over time, with experience. (This could be considered a style choice. Some writers love ems and parentheses. Others don’t. It’s their style, their voice. And this is in parentheses because “style” isn’t the topic of this blog post, but this is definitely related to the topic.)

"Grammar Girl" Sez...

Mignon Fogarty, better known as “Grammar Girl,” explains that em dashes lend more oomph than parentheses to what they set aside. I concur. It’s that sense of connection to what surrounds the intrusion. If “added oomph” works for you, then by all means, use that as your measure. To read her thoughts on the topic, just search for “Grammar Girl em dash” and Bob’s your uncle. Or, you could click here.

But I digress. The main issue here turns out to be mechanics. Specifically, commas.

If your digression/intrusion requires a comma afterward, you'll have to use parentheses. It's simply Not Done, putting a comma after an em dash when it's signifying an intrusive thought.

She picked up the soda (ordered an hour or so before, and now quite warm), the croissant (also an hour old, and now rather cold), and her phone, and left the diner.

If she was only picking up one thing, you could use ems:

She picked up the soda—ordered an hour or so before, and now quite warm—and left the diner.When to use parentheses vs. commas by Karen Conlin for

You may well be tempted to put a comma after an em when the dash signifies cut-off speech, like this:

"Didn't even leave a tip. What a cheap bi—," he muttered, censoring himself before anyone could overhear.

Em Dashes and Commas Don't Mix

Please don’t. It looks awful. But more important than that, it’s against the accepted punctuation conventions and rules. Em dashes and commas do not mix.

Change the tag to a beat so you don’t need a comma. Like this:

“Didn’t even leave a tip. What a cheap bi—” He bit off the word and chewed on its sourness as he shot daggers in her direction.

But, as usual, I digress. (A rather necessary digression, because I know if I don't cover that someone out there will bring it up and claim I omitted it even though it's not exactly on-topic for intrusions.)

(Notice how the period goes inside the closing paren.)

(There. It happened again.)

Intrusions Are Inevitable in Fiction

So, back to the topic. Intrusions are part and parcel of fiction writing, in my experience, but are very rare elsewhere. If you’re primarily a writer of news or academic articles, you won’t have much reason to use them at all; the expected and accepted register of such writing precludes the use of parentheticals. (For journals, the use of parentheses is reserved for in-line citations.) If you're writing fiction, whether there's dialogue or not, you'll likely find a use for an intrusion. (If you hate them, that's fine. I'm not prone to inserting them where they were absent, but I'm all about making sure the ones you use are correctly punctuated.) If your intrusion requires a comma afterward, it needs to be set aside with parentheses. If no comma is needed, you can use em dashes.

Parentheses Lack the "OOMPH" Factor

When to use parentheses vs. commas by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comEm dashes signify additional “oomph” to the intrusion. Parentheses are for additional information that’s nice to have, but not vital. Ask yourself how important the intrusion is, and you’ll be halfway to choosing the better punctuation.

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4 thoughts on “Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Parentheses vs. Em Dashes”

  1. Wendy says:

    You cover when an independent clause in parenthesis isn’t attached to any particular word/phrase in the preceding sentence, but I usually get tripped up on where the period goes when a parenthetical intrusion (usually to clarify the meaning/usage of my sentence-ending word/phrase) happens to qualify as an independent clause and happens to land on the end of a sentence.

    Or when I find myself intruding on my intrusion.

  2. Hello, Wendy.

    I think I understand what you’re asking (if I don’t, it’ll become clear before long).

    I wrote that as an example of what I believe you’re questioning. There’s the main thought, and it’s followed by a parenthetical that’s not so much an intrusion as a clarification.

    Note that it doesn’t get its own terminal punctuation (inside the parentheses). Rather, it ends with the closing parenthesis, which is followed by the sentence terminal punctuation, in this case a period.

    I could just as easily have chosen to style it like this:

    I think I know what you’re asking. (And if I don’t, it’ll be come clear before long.)

    Now, the main sentence is followed immediately by its terminal punctuation. Then, I placed the clarification statement within parentheses and put its terminal punctuation inside, before the closing one. It’s not so much an intrusion, styled like this, but the effect is mostly the same. Clarification.

    When it comes to nesting parentheses, which is what happens when you “intrude on (your) own intrusion,” there are similar guidelines. I’ll say up front, though, that it’s usually better to back up and rethink what you want to say, and then style it to avoid nesting because it’s easy to get lost in the (parenthetical) weeds. The only time the added thought at the end of the independent clause gets its own terminal punctuation is when it is separate from (not included within) the main sentence thought. This is true whether that added thought is a single word, a fragment, or an independent clause. Let me see if I can craft an example.

    I wrote this response last night while watching a movie with my husband (who was half asleep through most of it), my daughter (who isn’t all that fond of science fiction movies), and my granddaughter (who thought the whales were really neat). Hence my slight (HA!) distraction during the writing, which led to the mis-posting (because I neglected to log in (good thing I have the PW saved or I’d be sunk)).

    Okay, that’s a sloppy example, but it will serve. I’ve ended with nested parentheses; the terminal sentence punctuation follows the final closing parenthesis. The whole thing would be better without the nested parentheticals in the last bit:

    Hence my slight (HA!) distraction during the writing, which led to the mis-posting. (I neglected to log in. Good thing I have the PW saved, or I’d be sunk.)

    The interjection “HA!” gets an exclamation point. I ended the main thought after “mis-posting,” putting the terminal punctuation after it. Then I put the parenthetical, which isn’t an intrusion so much as a clarification/addition; it gets its own terminal punctuation, a period, before the closing parenthesis.

    As I said, I think this is what you’re asking. If I’ve missed the point, by all means email me and we’ll figure it out.


  3. Lindsey Russell says:

    Think you should point out this is USA usage and not UK.

    1. Karen Conlin says:

      Of course. I don’t discuss UK style, because I’m not a BrE speaker.

      That said, comparing CMoS guidance with that in the New Oxford Style Manual suggests there is little (if any) difference between BrE and AmE usage of these two types of punctuation. There are no spaces on either side of an em dash (BrE: em rule), other types of punctuation appear in the same places (periods/full stops go inside the parentheses), and so on. The suggested uses within dialogue are the same. See 4.11.2 for em rules and 4.12.1 for parentheses (brackets).

      If there is something else germane to ems and parentheses that I have missed, please, I’d like to know. It’s always good to learn new things about other styles, even when one doesn’t have cause to use them.

      I’m not touching the “where to put the full stop” because, as I said, BrE is not my bailiwick. If I need to know, I look it up. Also, that’s not part of this post: this is strictly about ems and parentheses.

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