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?

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