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Parenthetical phrases come in many stripes: the whispered aside, the not-so-brief digression, the explanatory remark, the wacky tangent. And, despite their moniker, they can be punctuated with commas, dashes, or parentheses, depending on their importance within the larger sentence. One thing is true of nearly all parentheticals, however: they are interruptions.
In speech, we interrupt our own utterances all day long, and our friends and colleagues keep pace easily. We skillfully and unconsciously augment what we’re saying with gestures, facial expressions, changes in pitch and tone of voice — all to help keep what we’re saying on track. Thanks to nonverbal and paraverbal cues like these, we can drop a parenthetical phrase just about anywhere in a spoken sentence, and whoever’s listening will follow along just fine.
In written English, of course, we don’t have such tools at our disposal. Our readers are stuck with just the words on the page and a few punctuation marks. That’s why it’s important to place parentheticals carefully, where they will cause the least disruption possible.
Take the following statement, for example:
Too few young women are entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers.
Spelling out what the acronym stands for is critical to understanding the sentence here, so the parenthetical phrase is important. But inserting it between the noun careers and its modifier is pretty awkward, and forces the reader to do some mental backtracking to piece the clause together. That’s a problem.
In most cases, the solution is pretty simple: examine the sentence’s structure and move the parenthetical to a place where a pause feels more natural. This is usually the end of the phrase or clause:
Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, math).
Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Poorly placed parentheticals crop up often in the writing I read. Business writers are usually trying to help explain or define some other element in the sentence. But they seem to get distracted by the relationship between the inserted material and the rest of the sentence — so much so that they end up using parentheses like wedges, cramming these phrases into awkward spots and, in the process, creating syntactic structures that are remarkably convoluted.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The bigger lesson here? I’ve said it before: trust your readers. They have undoubtedly encountered parenthetical phrases before, so give them some credit to connect the dots. Better yet, help them out by incorporating your parentheticals judiciously.
One last note, since our example features an acronym: For the love of Strunk and White, never, ever, do something like this:
Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Again, have confidence that your readers can figure out what the acronym stands for without your resorting to such blatant typographic disrespect. Deal?
I’ve made brief reference at least once on the blog to the importance of precision in writing. And there’s plenty of material to be written about that. The crux of the matter, though, is having a good sense of the words you’re using and how they work together with each other. Does that sound simple? Well, often it’s far from it.
Let’s look at it mathematically for a second. In a 19-word sentence like this one, the writer has to consider the relationships between 171 pairs of words. To be sure, many of those interactions are tenuous or harmless (and much of the time, we assess them quickly and unconsciously), but that’s still 171 chances for a misstep. And as any pharmacist will tell you, all it takes is a single bad interaction between two items, and a patient’s life can be in danger.
Thankfully, the sentences that most of us write tend not to be life-and-death matters. Take a gander at this excerpt from a marketing case study:
The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest one-on-one interaction with the organization’s cause.
Let’s zero in on the term one-on-one for a minute, making sure we have a good sense of its meaning. One-on-one describes a situation where two people at a time — and only two people — are involved. (In fact, the phrase was first used as a sports term.) That definition may seem pretty obvious, but it becomes important when we examine it in context with the larger clause and the full sentence.
At the event described here, we’re talking about a group of people, not just two, which by itself doesn’t disqualify the term. A room full of people can be experiencing one-on-one interaction — say, if they’re speed dating, or ballroom dancing, or playing Battleship. But here, it’s one person at a time interacting with a video screen, not another person. So one-on-one doesn’t quite fit. Another word, like individual, would be a better choice:
The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest individual interaction with the organization’s cause.
For the bonus round, let’s ask a few more questions about the relationships between these words, keeping both precision and concision in mind. For example: Were the guests truly interacting with a cause, or with something less lofty? Can you really give someone interaction, or was some other type of action taking place? Also, is there any missing information that would help describe the event more exactly? Can we eliminate any unnecessary details?
After all of these issues are addressed, here’s one possible revision:
The installation featured listening stations with high-definition screens and headphones, where guests could interact individually with video about the organization’s cause.
Is your head spinning yet? This all may seem like we’re splitting hairs, but good writers and editors learn to skillfully navigate nuances like these, and their readers are all the better for it.
The word bailiwick goes back to the 1400s or so, originally used to describe the jurisdiction of a bailiff — who, back then, was someone hired to assist the sheriff. Today, however, the word is often used metaphorically to describe someone’s area of expertise or authority. I almost always see it used in the negative or adversative, such as “That’s not really her bailiwick,” or “That’s outside my bailiwick.”
Etymologically, you can divide the word neatly in two: The first half is from the Old French term for bailiff, and the second is from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning town or village. (The latter is undoubtedly the same suffix that shows up in place names and surnames like Berwick, Hartwick, Warwick, Fenwick, and Eastwick.)
So it’s a useful term for your vocabulary, not to mention a series of sounds that’s pleasant to say. But why do I like the word so much?
When I was thirteen, my parents bought me a subscription to a puzzle magazine called Games, and I became immediately enthralled. Every issue included articles, brain teasers, game reviews, and other delicious content, but I loved the magazine most because it introduced me to so many types of wordplay. Sure, it contained your run-of-the-mill crosswords and word searches — but there were also all manner of inventive puzzles that played with words and letters in just about any way imaginable: cryptic crosswords, word spirals, word flowers, word rummy, and lots more. Early on, I couldn’t complete many of the puzzles; nevertheless, I was hooked. Even today, when I’m gearing up for a plane ride, I make sure my carry-on contains a mechanical pencil and a fresh issue of Games from the newsstand.
What, you ask, does this have to do with the word bailiwick? Well, one recurring puzzle in the magazine featured a list of five-letter sequences plucked from inside common English words. The goal was to identify the source word for each string of letters. For example, given the clue TCHST, you had to come up with the word matchstick. Or, for EETOT, the solution might be teetotaler.
When you look at bailiwick, perhaps you first see the words bail and wick — solid words, so normal they’re downright boring. But me? My eye goes right to the three i’s at its middle, with only the lovely liquids l and w to separate them. And all I can see is trickery, because (as I’ve thought many times) the clue ILIWI would be quite a stumper. Gaze at the word long enough, and the dots of those lowercase i‘s just might start to wink and nod, like wildflowers in the English countryside, mischievously expressing their agreement.
Let’s be honest. Despite the many jeremiads written about the PowerPoint-ization of the content we encounter — some of them well-deserved — when it comes to writing for business, the bulleted list is here to stay. Yes, a list often serves as a poor substitute for a series of connected thoughts. Used carefully, however, a list can be a smart way to communicate information quickly. (Of course, the items in the list should be succinct and parallel, but that’s a discussion for another post.)
Whether you’re stacking your items next to typographical glyphs or stringing them out in running text, here’s something to consider: How do you introduce your list? My teachers and textbooks always seemed to recommend a phrase like as follows or the following, plus what’s sometimes regarded as the Vanna White of punctuation marks, the colon. In general, this isn’t bad advice. But sometimes there are more artful ways to accomplish the task.
Take a look at the following excerpt from a business pitch deck. (As usual, some nouns and verbs have been altered to protect the unenlightened.)
Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed. These elements include:
Conscientious writers are always creating lines like these to set up a list — sometimes even adding the following for extra credit. The problem here is that we have three sentences, each of which points forward to the bulleted items. By the time we reach the word include, it’s as though we’ve read three separate introductions for the list. This paragraph is begging for a little tightening work, don’t you think?
Okay. For starters, the final sentence is entirely superfluous. In fact, this is a pretty common verbal tic for writers, thanks to our overzealous English instructors. Despite what you might have learned in middle school, you often don’t need a line that explicitly states “the elements are as follows.” As it turns out, our friend the colon is not just a Vanna White, pointing out what’s already obvious (apologies to Ms. White). In fact, the colon can communicate this connection — it can, on its own, say something like “and here they are”:
Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed:
Now to tighten the introductory copy further . . .
Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, they guide where the company is headed:
And further . . .
Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed:
For my money, this is a great place to land. We’ve ended up with an intro that’s much more succinct and a colon whose use might even qualify as elegant. (You be the judge.)
And here’s one final thought: When the items in the list are short, like these, consider whether the bullets are necessary at all. You may find that the list works just as well run back into the paragraph:
Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed: mission, vision, values, and objectives.
The larger lesson here? Trust your readers and their intelligence. Whether you’re writing a case study or a crime story, you’re always building an unspoken relationship with an audience. Using subtler cues can not only make your writing tighter; it can foster a better relationship with your readers, which is bound to make them more receptive to what you’re saying.