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Semicolons and Parentheses: Not a Good Combination

As usual, I read the New York Times on my morning commute to work. I was reading the article "House Bans Smoking, and Few Complain" by Anne E. Kornblut when I came across the following sentence:


Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who often puffed on a cigar in the lounge, refused to comment on it; (his aides recommended calling back with a more serious question).


Now, I suppose I could have been surprised to learn that my representative smokes, or used to smoke, cigars; but frankly, as long as he's not smoking them in my face I really don't care. What startled me, however, was the placement of the semicolon followed immediately by a parenthetical clause.

As far as I understood, this was a grammatical no-no. If the second clause is to be considered not as important as the first clause, then it should simply be placed in parentheses. On the other hand, if it is considered as important as the first clause, the semicolon is the way to go.

But then I started to wonder. Had I missed out on a brand new grammatical fad, semicolons and parentheses? Was this sentence trying to tell me something, other than the obvious? I thought I would throw that question out into the blogosphere and see if other people had run into the semicolon-parentheses combination.

Until I went to the Times website to link to this article, and found a slightly altered version of the sentence:


Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who often puffed on a cigar in the lounge, refused to comment on it (his aides recommended calling back with a more serious question).


As you can see, the website version of the article omits the semicolon. At this point, I'm assuming that Kornblut felt that the recommendation of Frank's aides was important enough to warrant the semicolon, but that her editor disagreed. So what we got in the printed version of the paper this morning was a transitional evolutionary stage of that sentence, with the parentheses added but the semicolon not yet removed.

The moral of the story is to remove your semicolon before adding your parentheses.

Why am I obsessing over this? I have no idea.

Comments

Aren't you stealing gnomi's shtick?

In addition to removing the semicolon, the author could have just as easily started a new sentence or even a new paragraph.
Of course as I've mentioned before, I too overuse parentheses.

Semicolons, not so much.

Aren't you stealing gnomi's shtick?

Proper grammar and punctuation should be everyone's responsibility!
Do'nt furgit prawpre spelleng!
Next you'll be saying I should take off my shoes before putting on my slippers. Pfeh. :>
I understand completely. At work, I frequently have to read reports written by my colleagues, and a frightening number of scientists are lousy writers. Poor grammer, confusing sentences, incorrect use of punctuation, and incoherent jumbles are all like fingernails on a blackboard to me. It's hard to resist the temptation to start editing...
Poor grammer

Don't forget inadvertent typos. :-)
*hangs head*

Okay, that's just embarrasing. I'm going to go hide in my cave now. Kind of takes the steam out of my rant, huh?
Why am I obsessing over this? I have no idea.

Because punctuation matters? Because punctuation is how the reader picks up the pauses and stresses and intonations that are lost between spoken communication and the written word?
Yeah, that seems like a reasonable explanation. Also, because my day-to-day job is that of editor, and because I've been listening to the Grammar Girl podcasts over the past few days, I've become more sensitized to this sort of thing.
"The moral of the story is to remove your semicolon before adding your parentheses."

I'm not sure it is. If they had made the same mistake with the opposite ordering, the result would be even worse:

"Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who often puffed on a cigar in the lounge, refused to comment on it his aides recommended calling back with a more serious question."

I think the moral of the story is, don't get distracted in the middle of editing an article for the New York Times, because no matter what you do, it's going to look silly.
But had the sentence been published that way, at least I would have recognized it as a mistake in punctuation. And I probably would have parsed it as two separate sentences.

The way it did appear, I started to wonder if there was a new rule about punctuation I knew nothing about...
> And I probably would have parsed it as two separate sentences.

Parsing it into two sentences is MANDATORY (in the punctuation-is-important world, at least), unless you are using a semicolon. Once the semicolon has been removed, you have a run-on sentence. Parentheses don't prevent the run on. A sentence with parenthetical statements must still read with proper grammar; the parentheses simply allow you to break up the logical flow, but not the grammatical flow.

For example, in this sentence (which contains two parenthetical statements) you'll notice that the language is grammatically correct both with (and without) the parenthetical comments. In other words, it's like having parallel sentence-universes, in which the parenthetical stuff can be present or absent, and the sentences will still perfectly correct.
Thank you! I knew the parentheses version read oddly, and it bothered me, but I couldn't come up with a clear explanation of why it was off.
I don't know, I kinda like the semicolon parenthesis combination (although I guess putting the semicolon after the parentheses makes a little more sense). Then again, I'm a wild and crazy punctuation rebel.

Last night, I was editing a cover letter for my mother, in which she had a double comma (to wit: "...the magazine,, and said..."). I jokingly asked if she meant it to be a really long pause.

I hate parenthesis

Although I use them all the time. More spicifically, I hate the parallel sets of punctuation rules that go with them, which fouled up several of my college papers. English papers require MLA format, while Education (and pretty much everyone else) require either APA or Chicago Style. Now, it's possible I was dumb and didn't pay close enough attention, but I'm pretty sure MLA differs wildly from the other two, in terms of how you punctuate inside and outside of the parenthetical statement, and how the parenthetical statement should fit in with the rest of the sentance. It's pretty clear that in this case, the punctuation/grammer was incorrect, but I would not be at all surprised if there's some obscure format out there that says you MUST preface every parenthetical statement with a semi-colon. The reason behind this, of course, would be to cause every editor in the world to start scratching his/her head.
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