Infinite Yeast: Parenthetical Phrases

A way to add stuff to sentences without having to use coordinate or subordinate clauses (ands or becauses, etc.), or relative phrases (whichs, etc.), is to use parenthetical phrases or clauses of some sort (phrases have no verb, clauses do). As Infinite Summer suggests at Conversational Reading, DFW often modified this way:

David Foster Wallace’s long, grandly periodic sentences, which often resemble nothing so much as a prolonged clay court baseline rally[—]multiple subordinations, extended parentheticals, and drifting subject matter[—]are enough to give a prescriptive grammarian palpitations.

It takes a while to get into in DFW—and it takes practice to do well (see James Tanner’s and John August’s tips on doing it à la DFW). Here’s a sentence/paragraph from “Order and Flux in Northampton” (Conjunctions 17 [Fall 1991]):

Myrnaloy Trask, trained Reproduction Technician, unmarried woman, vegetarian, flower-child tinged faintly with wither, overseer and editor of Announcement and Response at the ten-foot-by-ten-foot communicative hub of a dizzying wheel of leftist low-sodium aesthetes, a woman politically correct, active in relevant causes, slatternly but not unerotic, all-weather wearer of frayed denim skirts and wool knee-socks, sexually troubled, ambiguous sexual past, owner of one spectacularly incontinent Setter/Retriever bitch, Nixon, so named by friend Don Megala because of the dog’s infrangible habit of shitting where it eats: Myrnaloy has eyes only for Don Megala: Don Megala, middle-aged liberal, would-be drifter, maker of antique dulcimers by vocation, by calling a professional student, a haunter of graduate hallways, adrift, holding fractions of Ph.D.’s in everything from Celtic phonetics to the sociobiology of fluids from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, presently at work on his seventh and potentially finest unfinished dissertation, an exhaustive study of Stephen Dedalus’s sublimated oedipal necrophilia vis à vis Mrs. D. in Ulysses, an essay tentatively titled “The Ineluctable Modality of the Ineluctably Modal.”

Rhetorically speaking, parenthesis (“juxtaposition”) is a “figure of disorder,” a kind of hyperbaton (“transposition”) or departure from standard word order (a scheme in linguistics).

The other ones commonly used in English are

  • hysteron proteron (“latter first”): the reversal of the temporal or logical order, e.g., “Put on your shoes and socks”;
  • anastrophe (“turning about”), e.g., “the body beautiful”;
  • tmesis (“cutting”), e.g. “a-whole-nother”;
  • apposition (“placing near to”), e.g., “the bagel, the wonder bread of the Poles, . . . .”
Ways we can modify the sentence parenthetically

Introductory phrase

Once upon a time, there was a bagel (or not . . .).


He had the last bagel, honey.


Wtf, he ate the bagel!


My girl, though otherwise pretty picky, likes her bagel buttered.


a noun phrase

it functions as an adjective to modify a noun

Our flatmate, a classic narcissistic personality disordered youth, scoffed the bagel we’d stashed behind the vege drawer.

Absolute phrase

a noun + some other words (often a participle + a prepositional phrase, as here)

it functions as an adjective to modify an entire sentence, in particular, the subject

Eyes lit with incipient lust, my girl devoured the bagel mentally.

Free (or non-restrictive) modifier

a  participle (often) + a noun, free in its placement

it functions as an adverb to modify the entire sentence, in particular, the verb

Masticating each morsel with anorectic loathing, she put paid to the last skinny crust of the freezer-burnt loaf.

Resumptive modifier

it repeats a word from the previous clause and continues

And I was the bagel, the bagel she had buttered and devoured (mentally).

Summative modifier

it sums up the previous clause and continues

We had revenge bagel, a beautiful thing it was.

(Note that parenthetical phrases are always separated off with commas. For greater emphasis we can use dashes, for clarity parentheses.)

Places we can modify the sentence parenthetically . . .

  • left-branching/initial modification [→ a periodic sentence, i.e. a sentence that is not grammatically complete until the final clause or phrase—and relies on hypotaxis],
  • mid-branching/medial modification,
  • right-branching/final modification [→ a cumulative sentence, i.e. a sentence that builds on a grammatically complete initial clause or grammatically completes an initial phrase—and still relies on hypotaxis; or a continuous or running sentence, which adds phrase onto phrase, and clause onto clause—and instead relies on parataxis].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s