Parenthesis: The Art of Adding Meaning Between the Lines

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What is a parenthesis?
Parenthesis as a literary device

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Literary Terms – English Literature – Study Guide


Parenthesis: The Art of Adding Meaning Between the Lines

Parenthesis as a literary device refers to the insertion of an explanatory or qualifying word, clause, or sentence in a part of a sentence that is grammatically complete without it. This device often includes material that could be omitted without altering the meaning of the sentence significantly, yet adds extra information or commentary.

In writing, parentheses (the round brackets) typically denote the parenthetical content, but dashes and commas can also serve to encase this additional material. For example, the sentence “The governor’s mansion, which was built in the 1800s, is open for tours” uses commas to include a non-essential detail about the building’s age.

Parenthesis can provide additional context, offer deeper insight into a character’s thoughts, or add humorous asides to the narrative. It’s a versatile tool that can be subtly woven into the fabric of the text or used to make a more noticeable interruption within the flow of a sentence.

For example, let’s take this sentence:

“Mark Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens, is one of America’s most famous authors.”

The phrase “who was born Samuel Clemens” is a parenthesis. It gives us more information about Mark Twain, but the sentence would still make sense without it:

“Mark Twain is one of America’s most famous authors.”

This use of parenthesis adds depth to the text, providing readers with additional details that can enhance their understanding of the subject.


Some examples of parenthesis in English literature

  1. William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”:
    • “My father—methinks I see my father.” Here, the dash creates a pause for Hamlet to reflect on the ghost he believes he sees.
  2. Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”:
    • “Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well.” The phrase “easy and unaffected” is an aside that adds to our understanding of Elizabeth’s character.
  3. Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities”:
    • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, —a phrase Dickens famously uses to open his novel, immediately drawing the reader into a reflection on the era the story is set in.
  4. Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”:
    • “She could see it so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.” The colon here is used to add an explanation of the character’s thoughts after a general statement, almost as a parenthetical comment.
  5. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series:
    • “Fred and George, the twins, turned to each other and grinned.” In this case, “the twins” is an explanatory comment that helps identify who Fred and George are.

These parenthetical elements add depth and detail to the narrative, helping to paint a more vivid picture for the reader without disrupting the main flow of the text.

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