Columns > Published on March 28th, 2012

Sentence, INTERRUPTED! - Five Ways to Interrupt Yourself (Grammatically)

Interrupters! And I don’t mean your know-it-all coworker or chatty uncle. I’m talking about grammatical interrupters, the mid-sentence intruders that pop in to the middle of your sentences to add information—some of it necessary and some of it not.

To interrupt means to stop or hinder progress by causing a break in something that was hitherto occurring continuously. In the English language, there are at least five ways to grammatically interrupt a sentence. This article will explain each one as well as offer a couple examples.

1. Comma

This little tadpole is the least intrusive of the interrupters. The comma performs a variety of functions in the English language, but we’ll just focus on one of its many jobs; commas set off a “parenthetical element.” Parenthetical (as you’ll see in #2 of this list) means non-essential, additional information.

A comma is a mild interrupter; it introduces a side comment or extra bit of information without disrupting the overall flow of the sentence very much. According to an article by Grammar Girl, interrupting commas “are the conversational voice of a friend walking by your desk” and they are “a natural part of your sentence and not some comment from left field or flamboyant statement. Commas are generally used for appositives, which are defining or clarifying statements after nouns.” For example:

The eight people who appear in the photo, who are posing for the photo, are fanned out around one side of the table in a crescent or a kind of opened-out horseshoe, so that each of them can be seen clearly and completely.

From “Labyrinth” by Roberto Bolaño

The detail enclosed by the commas is interesting, but it is neither crucial to the reader’s understanding of the sentence nor to its grammatical integrity. The fact that the figures in the photo “are posing” is an extraneous detail offered by the writer, but if it were taken out, not much would be lost. Here it is again without the material enclosed in commas:

The eight people who appear in the photo are fanned out around one side of the table in a crescent or a kind of opened-out horseshoe, so that each of them can be seen clearly and completely.

2. Parentheses

As you probably gathered from number 1, parentheses also surround non-essential bits of information. According to Grammar Girl, you should “use parentheses when you want to enclose something that is incidental to the sentence, something that is background or almost unnecessary.” By using parentheses, the writer is cueing the reader to pause and listen to something else. The effect is sort of like the theatrical aside, when the actor turns to the audience and addresses it directly with some additional comment that the characters on stage are not supposed to hear. You can imagine the curve of the parentheses like the curve of a hand placed along the side of the speaker’s mouth to cover his or her words from one listener while redirecting them to another. Consider this example:

There’s nothing especially attractive about his features (although, compared with Henric, he looks not only more handsome but also more intelligent).

From “Labyrinth” by Roberto Bolaño

The parenthetical section here clearly serves to provide additional information about what the speaker really thinks about the person’s looks. It’s presented, however, as a side comment that could be omitted without affecting the grammatical structure of the sentence. It’s just an extra morsel of information the writer wants the reader to know.

What’s great about the parenthesis is its elasticity. You can enclose whole paragraphs in parentheses. Of course, authors who do this can wear their readers out a bit by insisting that whole chucks of information interrupt the continuity of the story. If the parenthetical sections are “non-essential”, the reader can’t help but wonder why so much is being enclosed in the first place. If Roberto Bolaño had not enclosed the comparison with Henric in parentheses, the reader would just assume the information was pertinent. Bolaño is making a conscious decision to cue the reader that this opinion is the speaker stepping away from the scene to make a comment. Generally speaking, there is no rule that says this type of information MUST appear in parenthesis. It’s entirely up to the writer to decide.

3. Brackets

 Yes, parentheses are brackets, a particular kind of bracket. There are many kinds; (), {}, [] are the ones we are most accustomed to seeing in regular use. Parentheses are the most common, but certain others appear for certain types of information.  The square brackets, in particular, can be used for a very special job that any smart-ass grammarian will love--interrupting someone else's sentence to point out errors! The Latin word sic means “intentionally so written” or “in such a manner.” In common usage, sic appears italicized (to indicate foreign language) and in square brackets after a section of quoted material to indicated that a quote has been reproduced exactly as written. For example:

During the noon hour Hernandez posted a message to his supporters on Facebook. It says, "I wan [sic] to publicly thank everyone who has been so supportive of me and my family these past few days. It means a great deal. I have complete faith that all will work out as planned."

From an article in KCBD

In the purest sense, the writer using sic is just trying to be loyal to the original. It can be used to point out spelling or usage errors, denote the use of an archaic term, or to call out serious fouls such as those Sarah Palinisms we loved to mock. (“Refudiate” anyone?!?) In that case, sic can be a snarky way to put a big, pointing, “you dummy” finger in the middle of a sentence of quoted material. Here’s an example Wikipedia offers up from The Times about a clothing store:

Warehouse has been around for 30 years and has 263 stores, suggesting a large fan base. The chain sums up its appeal thus: "styley [sic], confident, sexy, glamorous, edgy, clean and individual, with it's [sic] finger on the fashion pulse.

Some writers may even use it outside of quoted material to point out irony or denote errors in logic. For example, I might attempt to poke fun at Ms. Palin by using her infamous portmanteau to make a snarky point about her poor suitability as a presidential candidate.

The perpetually wishy-washy Sarah Palin neither refudiated [sic] her plans to run for president nor did she confirm them.

While "[sic]" is not an interrupter in the sense of other parenthetical material, it can be useful in pointing out errors and asserting your grammatical superiority mid-way through someone else’s sentence.

4. Em dash

Like parentheses and commas, the stylish em dash sets off sections of interesting, but not necessary, material in the middle of a sentence. The em dash is the longer dash in the family; as the name implies an em dash takes up two typographical spaces (one for each hump of the “m”) while the punier en dash takes up one hump space, same as an “n”. En dashes, and their similar-sized but differently-used hyphens, are not at all used in the same way. Hyphens link two or more words to create a single word and en dashes are used to represent things like time between elements, such as “January – March” among other things. I won’t go into all the various uses, but let it be known that an em dash has a very particular job all its own.

The em dash is the most dramatic of the interrupters, a sort of pause for dramatic effect before diving into the next bit of information. You use em dashes to set off something that may not be essential information as far as the grammatical integrity of the sentence is concerned, but that deserves extra attention. (You may also use the em dash when the section you are setting off already contains commas and/or parentheses.) As Grammar Girl puts it, “dashes are the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray.” Em dashes usually set off something that heightens the value of the sentence, adds class or pizzazz. See these two excellent examples from Margaret Atwood’s short story “Stone Mattress”:

She wouldn’t want to chance a deck chair in a bikini—superficial puckering has set in, despite her best efforts—which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean.

She makes her entrance slightly late, smiling a detached but cheerful smile—it doesn’t do for an unaccompanied woman to appear too eager—accepts a glass of the passable white wine they’re doling out, and drifts among the assembled nibblers and sippers.

In both examples, the sections enclosed in em dashes add a bit of personality that illuminates a new facet of the narrator's character The enclosed sections are not necessary to the sentence in general, but the additional information fill out the sentence and create a richer image and fuller characterization. It's an overall improvement to each sentence. See, not all interruptions are bad!

5. Interjections

The last, uh, interrupter, is the, um, interjection. Interjections are almost never necessary unless they are in the form of an affirmative like “yes/yeah/yep/sure”, negative like “no/nope”, greeting like “hi/hey/hello”, or dismissal like “goodbye/bye”.

Interjections, as the name implies, are one or two (maybe a few more) words that are set off by commas in the middle of a cohesive thought. These tend to be conversational, informal bits of wordiness that water-down an already solid sentence. Using interjections is a very specific style choice; there are no real grammatical imperatives (that I know of) that say you must use an interjection. Only a few rules govern it should you choose to use them, such as using commas before and after, unless it comes at the beginning or end of a sentence.

Many interjections are not really words, just onomatopoetic groups of letters meant to represent a sound generally made verbally when a person is speaking. Er, um, oh, and uh are all interjections. Other interjections are actual words, but when used as interjections, they generally lose their original meanings. Two examples of such interjections would be be the valley-girl favorite, like, and the very generic, well. Interjections can also be short talky phrases like in the example below:

Those, we might say, are the stable couples.

From “Labyrinth” by Roberto Bolaño

As you may have guessed, some of your favorite words can be used as interjections. Yes, I mean expletives. (Expletives can be used as adjectives, gerunds, verbs, etc., too. They are very versatile, which is why we love them.) For example:

Fuck, Joe, he’s a convicted thief; you should have known he’d steal your television.

Interjections, you see, are a great way to warm up your prose with talky bits of language. Of course, they are not suitable for any style of writing and can be downright annoying if used too much, but when used in moderation, well, they can be fun and, we might say, lighthearted.

Your-Turn: Imitate the Master

When composing this article, I had a particular poem in mind that seems to be like the best, most economical way possible to use an interrupter. Poet ee cummings (yes, there is some debate as to whether his name really needs to be all lowercase letters with no periods) has this tiny offering that seems to sum up all that is wonderful about parentheses.





Read out loud, it'd be: "l(a leaf falls)oneliness." This poem does so much in such a limited space:  the excellent imagery of the single leaf falling, the shape of the poem mimicking the downward motion of the falling leaf, the structure of the poem looking like the number 1--narrow at the top with a wider base, the lowercase "l" looking so much like an uppercase case "I" and implying all the independence and singularity that the pronoun encompasses, the word "one" appearing in the middle of the poem on it's own line, etc. In addition to all that, it's a perfect example of using parentheses to interrupt a complete thought to add an additional (but not necessary) bit of information.

For our exercise today, take a tip from Mr. Cummings (or mr cummings, if you prefer) and write a sentence or short poem that perfectly illustrates one of these interrupters. Please post your responses in the comments, or email me directly at

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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