An annoying habit of speech is failing to finish one thought before embarking on another. And so it is in writing. Parentheses and dashes can interrupt the flow of thought and damage the purpose and focus necessary to clear communication.
Consider the following sentences, in which extraneous material disrupts flow:
* “Indeed, so little is known about the artist’s early years and education (in 1584, at age 13, he was taken on as an apprentice in the Milan studio of Simone Peterzano, a former pupil of Titian’s and a painter of religious scenes) that the Caravaggio pilgrim might more profitably choose to pick up the painter’s trail in Rome, where the novice artist arrived in 1592 at age 21, determined to make his mark in a city experiencing a period of urban renewal and revitalization.”
* “While working for Cesari, Caravaggio became involved in the rough-and-tumble street life of the now-stylish Campo Marzio, which — with its elegant and handsome government buildings patrolled by carabinieri who always seem a few years too young for the machine guns they’re holding — shows little sign of the seedy brothels, taverns and alleys through which Caravaggio swaggered, caroused and encountered the prostitutes, gamblers, ordinary laborers and beggars that he would cast (so shockingly, to his contemporaries) as saints and witnesses in his most spiritual paintings.”
* “In Rome, without venturing far from the historical center, you can (especially if you are willing to dodge the murderous traffic on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and even more lethal motorini darting through the so-called pedestrian zone) trace the arc of Caravaggio’s glorious and tragically curtailed career in the capital, a meteoric trajectory that led from poverty to fame and riches and then to crime, murder and exile.”
* “Today, the Piazza di San Lorenzo in Lucina — where, on the night of May 28, the feud that had begun near the tennis courts erupted into a street fight during which Caravaggio stabbed and killed a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni — is most often filled with children and their nannies taking the sun and enjoying the gelato (some of the best in Rome) at Ciampini.”
Each of those lumbering sentences loses its way as the writer adds length and heft in the form of stray observations. The story’s focus is ostensibly 16th-century artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but the writer seems to ask: Shall I write history or travelogue? Shall I “trace the arc of Caravaggio’s glorious and tragically curtailed career,” or comment on today’s “murderous traffic” and “lethal motorini”? Shall I recapture Caravaggio’s seedy street life, or discuss the “elegant and handsome government buildings” that are now “patrolled by carabinieri who always seem a few years too young” for their machine guns? Shall I describe a murder, or deliver a homily on a certain gelato?
It’s possible to do both, of course, but seldom in the same sentence. The fix is simple: Extract the dashed or parenthetical material and plunk it elsewhere. Without it, the sentence will have one main idea instead of several. Subject will get closer to verb and verb to object. That last sentence, for example:
“On the night of May 28, Caravaggio clashed with a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni. The dispute later erupted into a street fight at the Piazza di San Lorenzo in Lucina, and Caravaggio stabbed and killed Tomassoni. Today, showing little sign of that violence, the Piazza is crowded with children and nannies taking the sun.”
As obtrusive as parentheses can be in narratives, they are even worse in direct quotations. If a source’s words are unclear on their own and must be buttressed by repeated interventions from the writer, then the quotation is too weak to run as a direct quote. Enter the paraphrase. The readers won’t miss the quotation marks, nor will they miss the writer’s unwelcome interruptions:
Nothing in this brief passage mandates a direct quote. The source’s garden-variety words could as well be the writer’s, minus the intrusions: “He said they didn’t want to commit to anything before the meeting, but that changed when Stevenson went public with his proposal.”
Correctly used, dashes and parentheses are invaluable, of course. But we should avoid anything that gets in the way of the message.
Paula LaRocque may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org