The Problem of Parenthesis in English Theoretical Grammar

The problem of differentiation between Parenthesis, Apposition and Detachment in Linguistics

It is generally recognized that Parenthesis (plural: parentheses; which comes from Greek, words meaning “alongside of” and “to place”) is an explanatory or qualifying word, clause, or sentence inserted into a passage with which it doesn’t necessarily have any grammatical connection [24]. However, there is a marked discrepancy of opinion concerning the problem differentiation between Parenthesis, Apposition and Detachment as they also can provide some explanation and additional information in the sentence and can be – and usually are – separated by commas. Parenthesis, if treated broadly, if a multifaceted linguistic phenomenon embracing paradigmatically and syntactically heterogeneous units, namely parenthetical verbs, adverbs, prepositional noun phrases, infinitival and participial phrases, and parenthetical clauses. This may account for the fact that the boundaries between parenthesis, on the one hand, and apposition and detachment, on the other, are often blurred.

Therefore, it appears necessary to shed some light on the aforementioned issues and scrutinize their convergent and divergent features.


Apposition is a grammatical construction in which relationship between two elements, normally noun phrases, are placed side by side, with one element serving to define or modify the other. They are used in the same way and refer to the same person or thing. For example:

My best friend, Jane, likes swimming [25].

In the phrase “my best friend, Jane”, the name “Jane” is in apposition to “my best friend”.

Traditionally, appositions were called by their Latin name appositio, although the English form is now more commonly used. It is derived from Latin: ad (“near”) and positio (“placement”). When this device is used, the two elements are said to be in apposition [35]. But sometimes the term “in apposition” means just “the same”. Therefore, when a parenthesis is the same thing as whatever it follows, it is called “parenthesis in apposition” [46].


Kent Oliver – the only professional jockey from Jersey – won his first race on Tuesday. In this example ‘the only professional jockey from Jerseyis Parenthesis.

Kent Oliver is the professional jockey. This is Parenthesis in Apposition.

At midnight last night, Skip (a guard dog for Bonds Ltd in Bury) hospitalized two intruders who broke in the company yard. Here brackets used as parentheses.

Skip is the guard dog. This is parenthesis in apposition

There are some examples of sentence which can not be reconstructed in the Parenthesis in Apposition.

Jamie Buxton, who fainted in church during his wedding, apologized to his wife… In this sentence the Parenthesis is who fainted in church during his wedding’. This sentence can not be rebuilt as parenthesis in apposition.

Paul, on the other hand, in considered extremely trustworthy. Here ‘on the other hand’ used as Parenthesis.

READ:  Modal words

But there are cases when the construction can be both Parenthesis and Apposition, as it can easy be removed from the sentence without damaging the sense of the whole sentence:

Barry Goldwater, the junior senator from Arizona, received the Republican nomination in 1964 [35].

John and Bob, both friends of mine, are starting a band [35].There is an interactive example:

Prices in Alton, a small town only 25 minutes from London, are soaring [35].

Apposition can be restrictive or non-restrictive where the second element parenthetically modifies the first [5, 184].

In a non-restrictive appositive, the second element parenthetically modifies the first without changing its scope. Non-restrictive appositives are not crucial to the meaning of the sentence. In a restrictive appositive, the second element limits or clarifies the foregoing one in some crucial way. Geoffrey Leech in his Communicative Grammar illustrates excellent example of Restrictive and Non-restrictive Apposition:

Which Mr. Smith do you mean? Mr. Smith the architect or Mr. Smith the electrician?

I want to speak to Mr. Smith, the electrician [5, 184].

In the phrase “Mr. Smith the architect or Mr. Smith the electrician“, “the architect/the electrician” specifies to which Mr. Smith the speaker is referring and is therefore restrictive. On the other hand, “Mr. Smith, the electrician” the parenthetical “the electrician” does not narrow down the subject, but rather provides additional information about the subject, namely, “Mr. Smith“.

In English, a non-restrictive appositive must be preceded or set off by commas, while a restrictive appositive is not set off by commas [35].

Restrictive apposition is common especially when the first element defines the meaning of the second element [5, 184]:

The famous critic Paul Jones

The number three

The novel Les Misérables

My good friend Bob

This man Smith

The letter ‘A’

Not all restrictive clauses are appositives. For example, Alice in “Bill’s friend Alice …” is an appositive noun; Alice in “Bill’s friend, whose name is Alice, …” is not an appositive but, rather, the predicate of a restrictive clause. The main difference between the two is that the second explicitly states what an apposition would omit: that the friend in question is named Alice. If the meaning is clear “Bill’s friend Alice” can be used.

The same words can change from restrictive to non-restrictive (or vice versa) depending on the speaker and context. Consider the phrase “my brother Nathan”. If the speaker has more than one brother, the name Nathan is restrictive as it clarifies which brother. However, if the speaker has only one brother, then the brother’s name is parenthetical and the correct way to write it is: “my brother, Nathan, …”. If it is not known which the case is, it is safer to omit the restrictive commas: “John’s brother Nathan” is acceptable whether or not John has more brothers, unlike “John’s brother, Nathan” [35].

READ:  Appendix 1-2

Sometimes the appositional relation is made explicit by an adverbial, for example, the passenger plane of the 1980s, namely the supersonic jet. Under apposition may also be included cases where the second element exemplifies the first, or is in inclusive relation to it. In such cases a connecting adverbial, such as for example, for instance, especially, particularly, in particular, notably, chiefly, mainly, is normally present [5, 184]:

Many famous men, for example de Gaulle, Churchill and Roosevelt, have visited this university [5, 184].

The children enjoyed watching the animals, particularly the monkeys [5, 184].

Examining the Apposition it is also important to mention about appositive clauses.

According to Geoffrey Leech appositive clauses are nominal clauses which have a relation to the head similar to that between two noun phrases in apposition. They can be that-clauses or to-infinitive clauses [5, 250]:

(1) The news that he was resigning his job proved to be incorrect.

(2)The police have been investigating a plot to kidnap a prominent diplomat.

The relation of apposition can be seen if noun phrase is related to a subject + be + complement construction:

(1a)The news was that he was resigning his job.

(2a)The plot is to kidnap a prominent diplomat.

That-clause is nominal clause and not a relative clause. For example:

(3) The news that was spreading proved to be incorrect.

That in (3) is relative pronoun, and could be replaced by which. It acts as the subject of the clause. But in (1) that is conjunction [5, 250].

Blokh regards that the appositive clause, in keeping with the general nature of apposition, does not simply give some sort of qualification to its antecedent, but defines or elucidates its very meaning in the context. Due to this specialization, appositive clauses refer to substantive antecedents of abstract semantics. Since the role of appositive clauses consists in bringing about contextual limitations of the meaning of the antecedent, the status of appositive clauses in the general system of attributive clauses is intermediary between restrictive and descriptive [13, 319].

In accord with the type of the governing antecedent, all the appositive clauses fall into three groups: first, appositive clauses of nounal relation; second, appositive clauses of pronominal relation; third, appositive clauses of anticipatory relation.

Appositive clauses of nounal relation are functionally nearer to restrictive attributive clauses than the rest. They can introduce information of a widely variable categorical nature, both nominal and adverbial. The categorical features of the rendered information are defined by the type of the antecedent.

The characteristic antecedents of nominal apposition are abstract nouns like fact, idea, question, plan, suggestion, news, information, etc [13, 320].

READ:  Parenthetical Clauses

For example:

The news that Dr. Blare had refused to join the Antarctic expedition was sensational.

We are not prepared to discuss the question who will chair the next session of the Surgical Society.

The characteristic antecedents of adverbial apposition are abstract names of adverbial relations, such as time, moment, place, condition, purpose, etc [13, 320].

For example:

We saw him at the moment he was opening the door of his Cadillac.

They did it with the purpose that no one else might share the responsibility for the outcome of the venture.

Appositive clauses of pronominal relation refer to an antecedent expressed by an indefinite or demonstrative pronoun. The constructions serve as informatively limiting and attention-focusing means in contrast to the parallel non-appositive constructions [13, 320].

For instance:

I couldn’t agree with all that she was saying in her irritation. I couldn’t agree with what she was saying in her irritation. (Limitation is expressed.)

That which did strike us was the inspector’s utter ignorance of the details of the case.What did strike us was the inspector’s utter ignorance of the details of the case. (The utterances are practically equivalent, the one with a clausal apposition being somewhat more intense in its delimitation of the desired focus of attention.)

Appositive clauses of anticipatory relation are used in constructions with the anticipatory pronoun (namely, the anticipatory it, occasionally the demonstratives this, that). There are two varieties of these constructions — subjective and objective. The subjective clausal apposition is by far the basic one, both in terms of occurrence (it affects all the notional verbs of the vocabulary, not only transitive) and functional range (it possesses a universal sentence-transforming force). Thus, the objective anticipatory apposition is always interchangeable with the subjective anticipatory apposition, but not vice versa [13, 321].

For example:

I would consider it (this) a personal offence if they didn’t accept the forwarded invitation. It would be a personal offence (to me) if they didn’t accept the forwarded invitation.

You may depend on it that the letters won’t be left unanswered. It may be depended on that the letters won’t be left unanswered.

The anticipatory appositive constructions, as is widely known, constitute one of the most peculiar typological features of English syntax. Viewed as part of the general appositive clausal system here presented, it is quite clear that the exposure of their appositive nature does not at all contradict their anticipatory interpretation, nor does it mar or diminish their “idiomatically English” property so emphatically pointed out in grammar books.

The unique role of the subjective anticipatory appositive construction, as has been stated elsewhere, consists in the fact that it is used as a universal means of rheme identification in the actual division of the sentence [13, 319-321].