with parenthetical elements

“Let’s eat Grandpa!” vs “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Commas save lives.

For me, it helps to think about these commas as coming in pairs like em dashes and parentheses and about the words inside as being a set, like maybe a set of things on a tray, and the commas are the handles on the side of the tray. That way I can picture picking up the whole set, commas and all, and taking it out or moving it around in the sentence as needed. (The only catch is that you need to ditch one of the commas when the set is at the beginning or end of the sentence.)

Professional Examples

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
~from Stephen King’s On Writing
~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement
~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

Past Student Examples

How Parenthetical Commas Work

Phrase, independent clause.

Independent, phrase, clause.

Independent clause, phrase.

The description “parenthetical” helps show the function of these commas: they take the place of parentheses to set off a removable and non-essential piece of information. While parentheses would make the information more understated and em dashes would emphasize the information, commas are the more ordinary and subtle middle option.

These parenthetical elements can come at the beginning, middle, or end of the sentence and generally add some kind of description. Be sure the parenthetical element comes in the most logical place in the sentence, right before or after what it describes. When the phrase is at the beginning, the comma has become optional in modern usage, especially when the phrase is short and won’t cause confusion without a comma. Also sometimes a phrase in the middle won’t use commas if it’s considered essential information.

A few common parenthetical elements include words like however, -ing phrases, phrases starting with which, the name of the person to whom you are speaking (see the quote about eating Grandpa at the top), etc. On the other hand, phrases starting with that usually don’t break off with a comma.

Self Check

Like with em dashes and parentheses, the piece broken off by the commas should be completely removable. Cover it up and check that the rest of the sentence can stand on its own. If your parenthetical phrase comes in the middle, make sure you have a second comma leading back into the main clause.

50 Comments »

  1. Katie V. said

    Above all, she wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment’s thought, and that would take time. ~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement

    I think it helped that they put in “above all” because it’s saying over everything else, she still wanted to look like she didn’t think about it but it would take time to look like that. It made it sound like that was the most important thing.

    I love flat rate boxes; the post office, however, doesn’t always go by the rule “if it fits it ships”.

  2. Randie Patterson said

    Above all, she wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment’s thought, and that would take time.

    ~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement

    I like how the comma’s break up the sentence but at the same time keep it in put together.

    I got my major picked out, after lots of debating and deciding, and I think its going to be very rewarding in the end.

  3. Cory Hansen said

    “If you’re happy in a dream, Ammu, does that count?” Estha asked.

    I love the way this scentence is structured. It’s complexity makes it the perfect example of proper use of multiple punctuation.

    Laughing and making jokes, although bleeding perfusely, was the best way for john to get through the doctor visit.

  4. sharla c said

    *
    Above all, she wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment’s thought, and that would take time.

    ~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement
    I liked the usage of commas in this example.
    My nice is a great soccer player.However, some people still tell her she needs to practice everyday to be the best.

  5. Sara Farnsworth said

    Parenthetical commas are a more common way to insert information that would not normally be addressed.

    Making sure you’re children are reading the right books, however, takes some time and homework.

  6. Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.
    ~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

    The commas work because what is in between them is a description of the subject (Oscar Wilde), And it emphesizes what comes next.

    I tried to use this weekend to relax, however, it didn’t work out so good.

    • I tried to use this weekend to relax; however, it didn’t work out so good.

  7. The parenthetical elements in any segment of writing will help the reader to determine what is really being said, kind of like a stop and think about the context of the passage. The phrase can be empathized as to where you place a comma with a parenthetical element.

    Example: The Jones family went to the extreme of spending their money, however, they did not realize that the future would not play out as they wanted it to.

    • Sorry don’t know why my title of, english2010hardclass said is coming up. It should state — Barbara Waters said.

  8. Trista said

    Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.

    The commas work really well in this sentence because it gives you a little extra information. Without the commas it wouldn’t sound right.

    Example: My car, a Mazda three, gets awesome fuel mileage.

  9. Amber said

    Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.
    ~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

    The commas here add some humor and a little sarcasum. He thinks he is never wrong, which is funny, because everyone is wrong at some piont.

    I bought my kids Halloween costumes on Saturday, never mind that it’s only September 24th, and they wore them the rest of the weekend! I now have a Muscle Ninja and a Storm Trooper for children, I suppose it could be worse.

  10. Commas with parenthetical elements

    These commas can take the place of parentheses. Unlike parentheses, which downplay or whisper a thought, these commas take the middle road and allow you to maintain a normal talking tone.

    Living life indoors, however, can be very depressing.

  11. Andrea Oldham said

    •Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot.
    ~from Stephen King’s On Writing

    I think adding the “however” puts more emphasis on the entire sentence. Please remember, however, makes you pause and think about the sentence a bit more.

    My sister, Katie, just bought a brand new black sports car.

  12. Becky M said

    •He might last for weeks without food, but no animal, however mighty, can do without water for any extended period of time.
    ~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

    Using the commas in this sentence set off and emphasize what kind of animal he is using in his example.

    Training a new puppy requires a huge time commitment, however, it will be worth it once she gets the hang of going outside to potty.

    • Becky M said

      Training a new puppy requires a huge time commitment; however, it will be worth it once she gets the hang of going outside to potty.

  13. Mitch said

    Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.

    the phrase between the commas is completely removable and gives the sentence as a whole a new meaning with the implied sarcasm.

    Hockey, which happens to be the best sport out there, is full of fun and entertainment while you watch.

  14. Wayne Holdsworth said

    Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong.Suggested that it is a perilousto promiscuoslycontradict people who are much younger than youself.

    I like that the comma takes place of a parentheses and seperates the independent clause.

    The lake is full, for the end of september.

  15. Jaron Woolley said

    Definition:
    commas with parenthetical elements contain a little hiccup of information. We, like the sentance, are all ok without the hiccups.

    Example:
    The hiker crested the mountain around 2 p.m., although he was shooting for noon, where he found a wonderful view.

  16. Patrick Williamson said

    •“What is your evaluation of the instructor?” asks question number eight, entreating them to circle a number between five (excellent) and one (poor).

    The comma in this sentence allows you to add some additional information, though not completely necessary, to make it easier to answer.

    My son cut open his knee last night while jumping over a gigantic plactic bottle of St. John’s wart remover; however, he did not need stitches.

  17. Wendy Edwards said

    Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot.
    ~from Stephen King’s On Writing

    The use of “however” doesn’t have to be there can be removed and the point is still intact.

    To err is human; however, to really louse things up it takes a Smartphone.

  18. Becky Tueller said

    “Let’s eat Grandpa!” vs “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” Commas save lives.

    There was no author cited on this quote, but I decided to us it anyway. This example clearly demonstrates the importance of the comma in this sentence; will Grandma be the meal or eat the meal—that is the question. The placement of the comma completely changes the meaning and intent of this phrase; provideing Grandpa a different experience depending on which choice is made.

    In the Autumn, I love to see the splendor of color splashed upon the mountain side as the leaves display their final salute to summer; However, I am not as enthusiastic about the arrival of plummeting temperatures and the fluttering snowflakes of Winter.

  19. Kevin F. said

    He might last for weeks without food, but no animal, however mighty, can do without water for any extended period of time.
    ~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

    I like how it gives emphasis to how strong the animal really is and still has a weakness.

    The hunter had his sights set on shooting a big buck; but night fall came to soon, however, a small doe will still put meat in the freezer.

    • Kevin F. said

      The hunter had his sights set on shooting a big buck but night fall came to soon; however, a small doe will still put meat in the freezer.

  20. elysagiles said

    Description: Commas with parenthetical elements are a more subtle way to break up a sentence. The information between the commas is secondary, so the commas play them down without the boldness of parenthases.

    Example: Many people manage to escape falling ill in the winter, however, if you have children in school, you’re probably not one of them.

  21. Amber Lyman said

    Definition:
    Commas with parenthetical elements allow you to add additional information, even if it is not required, that is relevant to your topic.
    Example:
    Most people understand that they have specific covered medications, called a formulary, but most don’t understand that there is more to a formulary than covered vs. non-covered.

  22. Josh Hansen said

    Commas with parenthetical elements are used to add material that doesn’t normally fit into the flow of a sentence. Unlike parentheses or em dashes, however, commas do not alter the tone of your sentence.

    As a child, I was taught that I could do and be anything I wanted.

  23. Joanna said

    Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.

    I like how the comma in the sentence allows the author to insert a little sarcasm.

    Finally, my homework is done for the day, however, it took way longer than I had hoped.

    • Joanna said

      Finally, my homework is done for the day; however, it took way longer than I had hoped.

  24. Regina Farley said

    Definition-
    Commas with parenthetical elements incorporate additional non-essential information right into the sentence, without using parentheses.

    Example-
    Kenzie’s cleats, which were bright blue, were covered in mud because it rained before practice.

  25. Jennifer R. said

    Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot.
    ~from Stephen King’s On Writing

    I like that there is a little more of a pause using the commas make you pay attention to what is coming next in the sentence.

    Rearranging a house, so that more people can move in, is never any fun.

  26. Kaitlin Anderson said

    Commas with parenthetical elements are like roses that go with a proposal; they are not strictly needed, but are nice to have anyways (whether before, during, or after the proposal).

    You do not, however, need a professional SLR camera to find photography therapeutic.

  27. kyle norman said

    •Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.

    I love that the comma allows a bit of sarcasm as a side note.

    The rivers are running low in Utah, witch are only low 3 month out of the year, because the snow has finally melted.

  28. Fatima G. said

    comas with parenthetical elements help give extra information without adding too little or too much emphasis.

    My daughter and I go to the movies almost every other week, it’s one of our favorite activities.

  29. Kyndra N said

    Commas with parenthetical elements are used to enhance material that doesn’t normally fit into the flow of a sentence. Unlike parentheses or em dashes, nonetheless, commas are more conventional.

    My cousin, Kaitlyn, has real pure beauty.

    • Kyndra N said

      I strongly dislike my sentence.

      You should, nevertheless, remain positive about yourself despite the misconceptions going around.

  30. Shonnie said

    •Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.
    ~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

    The use of parenthesis is perfect in this scentence. It adds a hint of sarcasm to what the author is saying, but could be left of the sentence if needed.

    Watching the Lion King again, this time in 3D, made me reminisce about my childhood.

  31. Shelley Nudd said

    I like the idea of the phrase being the tray and the commas the handles of the tray. Pick it up and check your sentence, then put it right back.

    example: Even though they must know he will do it again, abused women allow the perpetrator back into their lives over and over again.

  32. Cassie said

    I need to download certian programs, that are free, and make sure they are in the correct format.

  33. Zack H. said

    •Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.
    ~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education

    I like how it informs us how Oscar Wilde is never wrong.

    “Are you excited, Zack, for the duck hunt?” Matt asked.

  34. Abad said

    Definition:
    A parenthetical element is like inlcuding someting BTW into a conversation.

    Example:
    I love a good hambuger, however, I need to becareful since I have managed to drop over 60 lbs in the last 12 months.

  35. Definition-
    Commas with parenthetical elements allow for more information to be given, and like an oreo comes with two seperators from the message inside. Best of all its just as good with only one side if needs be.

    Example-
    Withdrawl symptoms are common, usually peaking on the third day without caffeine, among individuals attempting to eliminate dependency on the drug.

  36. heidibobo said

    Definition:
    This is a great grammar tool for me as I have so many thoughts on certain ideas that need to be broken up into segments, to finish what I need to say.

    Example:
    The Ronald McDonald House is one example of reaching out to the community, which allows us to service families with children, who are staying in the hospital for an extended amount of time.

  37. aortiz12 said

    Def: a comma with additional parenthetical elements gives a lot of information in one little sentece.

    Ex: above all, she continued smoking, but taught her kids not to follow her footsteps.

  38. Derrick Hughes said

    These commas are found when the forward movement of a clause is interrupted.

    That explanation, as I have already said, doesn’t make any sense.

  39. Jackie said

    Parenthetical commas can be likened to an aside or an afterthought.

    I remember the first, and only, time he ever commented on my weight.

  40. Definition: A parenthetical element is kinda of like a side note, to a sentence.

    Example: I was young, three months old, the first time my dad left for war.

  41. Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.

    ~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

    I think the commas help this sentence by making it more believable.

    My dog ,who never stops barking, woke me up last night.

  42. sanahwong said

    a parenthetical comma backs up the first phrase, it acts as a supporter of the first phrase.

    Suffering gall stones, without knowing the exact symptoms, will make it hard to determine who to see at the hospital.

  43. dan said

    •Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot.
    ~from Stephen King’s On Writing

    for me the story is all and the plot is the story.

    although i am completing my homework, however, I am finding I have very little time (in my schedule) for it.

  44. Alli Wright said

    these times of commas are used in order to add more information, or a transition to a statement. Almost like it is a side note.

    I have never, except that once, been pulled over by a cop.

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