Interrupting Yourself

One of the challenging things about this blog is the process of dividing the broad topic of academic writing into manageable bits. My goal is to have posts that are short, self-sufficient, suitably comprehensive, and recognizably part of a broader whole. Since that broader whole, by definition, doesn’t exist yet, I am struggling to find the optimal way to divide things up. I recently wrote a post on dashes, which I thought would be a neat and tidy little topic. As it turned out, I actually had quite a bit to say about dashes. In the end, I ran out of space before I had dealt with the implications of interrupted sentences in academic writing (thanks to my husband for diplomatically pointing this out). So here is another attempt to discuss this issue, focussing particularly on how to decide what punctuation to use when interrupting yourself. Let’s start with that basic idea: interruption. When and how should you interrupt yourself? As I said in the earlier post, interruption is a stylistic aberration and thus not something to be overused. But there are times when we need to add extra information into our sentences. Consider the following three examples:

Civil society (a concept that is notoriously difficult to define) is crucial to any attempt to increase voter turnout in a proportional representation electoral system.

Civil society, a concept that is notoriously difficult to define, is crucial to any attempt to increase voter turnout in a proportional representation electoral system.

Civil society—a concept that is notoriously difficult to define—is crucial to any attempt to increase voter turnout in a proportional representation electoral system.

Which of these do you prefer? Chances are you prefer the second one; barring some special circumstance of which we are unaware, this particular interruption is best managed with commas. To review, commas are the least obtrusive way of interrupting yourself; parentheses announce that something is unimportant and not worthy of integration into the sentence; and dashes draw the reader’s attention to the material. In this case, the interruption should likely be handled with commas because the point needs to be made but not emphasized.

Here are some examples of sentences with unimportant interruptions (e.g., technical information, dates, terminological clarifications):

The sensor (LK-G82, KEYENCE company) is put inside a casing and then used to measure impact velocities.

Isaac Newton (1643–1727) wrote extensively on Biblical hermeneutics.

Funding was provided to elementary schools (kindergarten through grade eight) and secondary schools (grades nine through twelve).

In each of these cases, parentheses seem like the best choice; in fact, using commas in their place would require us to use extra words and would draw unnecessary attention to useful but uninteresting information.

Here, however, are some borderline instances of parentheses usage:

Individuals with unusable surveys (due to either illegibility or incompleteness) will not be included in the second level of analysis.

Earthenware vessels (among other artefacts) were present in the region.

Of these barriers to cycling, the most likely candidates include weather elements (such as rain or snow) and safety elements (such as bike lanes and bike-friendly intersections).

I would likely recommend not using parentheses in these sorts of cases. My guiding principle is that the author should have a sound reason to exclude the bracketed information from the sentence proper. In each of these three cases, I think the parentheses could be avoided by using commas.

Now let’s turn briefly back to dashes. As we saw in the earlier post, dashes indicate that something is worthy of extra attention:

The issues that confront students entering late-stream French immersion programs—most importantly, their lack of familiarity with instructional vocabularies—are a pressing concern for school administrators.

We also learned that dashes can help us when using commas would make the sentence needlessly complex. In such a case, we may decide to use dashes to interrupt ourselves even though the intervening material isn’t especially noteworthy. Consider these two examples:

Since architects are dependent on domain knowledge, generally elicited from specialists, users, and stakeholders, the development of guidelines should not be dependent on general algorithms.

Since architects are dependent on domain knowledge—generally elicited from specialists, users, and stakeholders—the development of guidelines should not be dependent on general algorithms.

The second sentence is, in my view, easier to read. However, the dashes are there for clarity rather than for emphasis, and one could quibble that I have overemphasized the interruption. It is important to find a balance; in some cases, I would definitely reword rather than use dashes to solve this type of problem.

I think I am now finished with dashes and the related question of sentence interruptions. But if you have further questions associated with this issue, please raise them in the comments below. Next we will look at an editing strategy designed to help us deal with our problem sentences.

5 responses to “Interrupting Yourself

  1. I offer a different preference:

    – interrupting with parentheses should lower one’s voice
    – interrupting with dashes should slightly speed-up going through comment
    – interrupting with commas should mark pausing

    I generally agree with your comments, though. I feel most people overuse commas. Just think of such a comment, put inside a parenthesis and containing further commas: what it would look like, if parentheses were also replaced by commas ?

    Oh: I’m no expert, just using intuition. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Dashes | Explorations of Style

  3. When your aside can be written as an independent clause, does that rule out commas? If you used commas, that would be a comma splice…?

    • It’s probably important to make a distinction between an interruption (which has main sentence on either side) and an aside that ends the sentence (as in the example given in the link). Using a comma between two independent clauses will look like a comma splice. I think I would prefer dashes for any interruption that itself an independent clause.

      • Yes, I’ve moved a couple of these to dashes when I catch them. I also agree with your sentiment about dashes trying to take over the colon’s work. I read dashes as an aside of sorts.

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