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Using an 'aside'

Capt Zapp

I have a question about using an 'aside' in the narrative. What is the proper punctuation when it interrupts the main flow? The passage is:

I was returning to the cabin when... did I mention we all moved into the cabin?... I heard an unexpected argument

Ross at Play
Updated:

In most cases you may use one of:

* commas before and after

* dashes before and after

* parentheses

***

You cannot use commas here, because if they are used the contents of the aside must be grammatically correct within the entire sentence. The question mark rules that out here.

***

Both dashes and parentheses are a stronger interruption to the sentence than commas. The choice between them is based on how closely related the idea in the aside is to the main sentence.

I have seen descriptions for the differences between them using these words: parentheses for "afterthoughts" or "comments"; dashes for "conclusions" or "explanations".

***

You need parentheses in your sentence.

***

Note that ellipses are reserved for trailing off of speech, or omitted words from quotes of written material. I have only seen one grammar guide suggest any possible use other than inside some sort of quote.

That is in the Oxford University Style Guide which states:

Use an ellipsis to indicate a pause for comic or other effect – follow the ellipsis with a space in this case, as it stands in place of a comma or full stop.

Their example was: You don't have to be mad to work here… but it helps!

***

If you've been watching other threads recently, you'll understand why that is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. :-)

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

Personally, I'd use an em-dash in that case, although there are several alternatives. The only hard and fast rule is that you separate it from the larger sentence, generally with either commas or, in your case, with ellipses. However, in dialogue at least, the ellipses imply a hesitation in speech, whereas in the narrative it implies something's been removed from the text (unless written in 1st person limited). Generally, you only use the em-dash if you want to emphasize the aside, given it especially strong attention (generally when it foreshadows future events). Thus which technique you choose is open to interpretation based on context.

"I was returning to the cabin when—did I mention we all moved into the cabin—I heard an unexpected argument."

My only caveat to your example, is you're inserting an 'end of sentence' punctuation in the middle of the sentence. Since the question mark is intended to flag a rhetorical question, it's really unnecessary, so I'd drop it entirely lest readers stumble over it and possibly complain, rather than continuing to read uninterrupted.

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

* parentheses

Minor nit. Parentheses are generally restricted to non-fiction usage, as no one uses them in speech. You might slip them into the narrative, but you should absolutely refrain from using them in dialogue. Otherwise you get the following dialogue:

"Let me introduce my--open parentheses--significant other--close parentheses."

As you can see, the whole premise sounds (and reads) badly.

Replies:   Lugh  Ross at Play
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Capt Zapp

You put em-dashes on both sides of the aside.

I was returning to the cabin when—did I mention we all moved into the cabin?—I heard an unexpected argument

I'm not sure if you're supposed to capitalize "Did."

Ernest Bywater

@Capt Zapp

I try to avoid needing such types of comments by having the item more normally covered in the text earlier as either narrative or suitable dialogue when the event in the aside happened.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

You put em-dashes on both sides of the aside.

I was returning to the cabin when—did I mention we all moved into the cabin?—I heard an unexpected argument

I'm not sure if you're supposed to capitalize "Did."

Em-dashes are (generally) used in pairs, although it's sometimes optional if the aside occurs at the end of the sentence.

You don't capitalize "did" because it's not a separate sentence, it's merely an aside within the current sentence, which is also why you don't end the sentence in the middle with a question mark. Again, it's a rhetorical question, so the question mark isn't necessary in either case.

Ernest's point is worth considering, as these 'asides' are often merely shortcuts in writing, dumping something you forgot to address earlier into unassociated dialogue, so it's worth reworking the story to avoid it.

Generally, you only use an aside when there's a specific reason for it—such as when it provides a foreshadowing element—or someone is expressing an opinion about the topic of discussion, not when someone is changing the topic entirely.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater  REP
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

such as when it provides a foreshadowing element—or someone is expressing an opinion about the topic of discussion,


In plays these types of aside are conversations the actor addresses to the audience and not the other actors. For these I usually have the person think about it to themselves, or have them whisper it to another character. While I work to avoid having to update the reader with information I should have imparted earlier.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Capt Zapp

Okay. Same text, new question. Should the "when" be left before the side comment or moved to after?

I was returning to the cabin when (did I mention we all moved into the cabin?) I heard an unexpected argument


or

I was returning to the cabin (did I mention we all moved into the cabin?) when I heard an unexpected argument

Replies:   REP  Crumbly Writer
Lugh

@Crumbly Writer

Parentheses are generally restricted to non-fiction usage


Tana, who markedly resembled an intellectual Jessica Rabbit, stood behind me, and parenthesized each of my ears using a lovely breast.

REP

@Crumbly Writer

dumping something you forgot to address earlier into unassociated dialogue, so it's worth reworking the story to avoid it


I find it a useful means of introducing a new topic or as a gambit for reopening a prior topic's discussion; said topic to be discussed sometime after the current topic is concluded.

REP

@Capt Zapp

Does it really matter? In real world conversations, asides are frequently stated at the moment they occur to the speaker.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@REP

In real world conversations, asides are frequently stated at the moment they occur to the speaker.


And a re usually directed to someone else present as dialogue, not as a narrative to the reader. Thus you could handle it as part of dialogue to someone else in the story.

Replies:   REP
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

In plays these types of aside are conversations the actor addresses to the audience and not the other actors. For these I usually have the person think about it to themselves, or have them whisper it to another character.

I've largely gone in the other direction, having decided that writing someone's thoughts just isn't a natural process and it takes away from the story. You're especially giving people a peek into their mental process, rather than establishing their motivations by showing who they are.

In my case, these asides, while directed at the reader, are in keeping with the characters' natural conversation patterns. Usually, it consists of inside jokes or concerns about upcoming events—which often prove true—though I also provide false leads, so readers won't anticipate which foreshadowing events predict events.

Crumbly Writer

@Capt Zapp

Okay. Same text, new question. Should the "when" be left before the side comment or moved to after?

The "when" belongs where it is, for the same reason why you should use em-dashes instead of parentheses: it's interrupted speech. In this case, the character is interrupting their own thoughts, demonstrating the chaotic nature of their mind at the time. Em-dashes are specifically designed for interrupted speech, but also do double duty as separators for sentence fragments which aren't directly related to the sentence. In your case, they're doing both, so your only real alternative, if you maintain the current sentence structure, is to use the em-dash (plus, you rarely see the parenthesis in fiction). You'll notice I use them all the time on the forum or in emails, but never in my stories.

@REP

I find it a useful means of introducing a new topic or as a gambit for reopening a prior topic's discussion; said topic to be discussed sometime after the current topic is concluded.

Yep, that's another great use of them. In that case, you're foreshadowing a future conversation between the characters in a natural manner which doesn't seem forced.

One reason the parentheses aren't used in fiction as they're generally interpreted as 'author intervention', the author explaining the story directly to the reader, bypassing the characters. Readers tend (general assertion warning) to see the punctuation as non-native to the speaker.

As my description of the interruption of speech shows, these interruptions can mean very much. Displaying it as an interruption in someone's speech helps to show their mental state, while the parentheses tend to be interrupted (correctly or not) as an external aside by the author himself).

Ernest's method, moving the aside to a private conversation with someone else, works as well, but requires scheduling private moments between the other parties, which often necessitates juggling scenes around--something which isn't always easy to arrange.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

Ernest's method, moving the aside to a private conversation with someone else,


The best ways are the ones that work in real life, such as a whispered word while holding back a bit when walking, or a quiet word in a corner or hallway at a noisy party.

REP

@Ernest Bywater

You are right. I overlooked that it was dialog.

Now let's see narrative is telling about something, dialog is talking. Yep, got it right this time. :)

REP

Meant to say:

You are right. I overlooked that it was not dialog.

Left out the 'not' and the edit function won't allow me to make a change and save it.

Ross at Play

@Ross at Play

You need parentheses in your sentence.

I WAS WRONG to say you needed parentheses.
After looking at references I would no longer be adamant that dashes could not be used anywhere parentheses are allowed, or visa versa.
The references do suggest a preference for using parentheses for things less closely related to the sentence, but it's hard to claim any more than that.
***
You need one or the other here. On reflection, my preference would be dashes.

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Minor nit. Parentheses are generally restricted to non-fiction usage, as no one uses them in speech. You might slip them into the narrative, but you should absolutely refrain from using them in dialogue.

No, MAJOR NIT. :-)
I reached similar conclusions last night when researching references - especially about not using parentheses in dialogue.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

You put em-dashes on both sides of the aside.
I was returning to the cabin when—did I mention we all moved into the cabin?—I heard an unexpected argument
I'm not sure if you're supposed to capitalize "Did."

You are correct about em-dashes being "right" here.
Regarding the capitalising of "Did" - 6.92 of CMOS states:
'Like dashes but unlike commas, parentheses can set off text that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.'

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ross at Play

You put em-dashes on both sides of the aside.
I was returning to the cabin when—did I mention we all moved into the cabin?—I heard an unexpected argument
I'm not sure if you're supposed to capitalize "Did."

You are correct about em-dashes being "right" here.
Regarding the capitalising of "Did" - 6.92 of CMOS states:
'Like dashes but unlike commas, parentheses can set off text that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.'
***
EDIT TO ADD to Capt Zapp
This means there are no rules about where fragments enclosed in dashes or parentheses. Like interjections, they have no grammatical effect on the main sentence they appear within.
***
POSTED A SECOND TIME BECAUSE EDIT IS NOT WORKING

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Ross at Play

POSTED A SECOND TIME BECAUSE EDIT IS NOT WORKING


You aren't the first person to notice. I dropped a post for the edit problem on in the bug fixes area.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

Regarding the capitalising of "Did" - 6.92 of CMOS states:
'Like dashes but unlike commas, parentheses can set off text that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.'


What does that mean?

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

My quote:
Regarding the capitalising of "Did" - 6.92 of CMOS states: 'Like dashes but unlike commas, parentheses can set off text that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.'
Your question:
What does that mean?

I base these comments on a variety of different sources I have seen. I can assure you that many whose job it is to know such things would agree my explanations are correct, but I cannot be certain all would agree.
***
It means:
For parentheses and dashes used in pairs:
* Your main sentence must make sense if you cut out the inserted text and its enclosing punctuation marks
* The contents within the enclosing punctuation marks must make sense, but they may be anything that could be grammatically correct
***
For sentence fragments enclosed within a pair of commas:
* The entire sentence, including the text enclosed inside commas, must make grammatical sense
***
For interjections:
* The fragment containing the interjection must be separated from the main sentence. Commas are sufficient but most other will achieve that as well
* In the same way as for parentheses and dashes used in pairs, the main sentence must make sense if you cut out the inserted text and its enclosing punctuation marks
* Unlike parentheses and dashes used in pairs, the interjection may be absolutely anything. There is no requirement for interjections to be grammatically correct.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

* The contents within the enclosing punctuation marks must make sense, but they may be anything that could be grammatically correct


This means "Did" should be capitalized. That's what I thought.

Switch Blayde

@Switch Blayde

This means "Did" should be capitalized. That's what I thought.


EDIT doesn't work so I had to create a new post.

I was wrong. Grammar Girl says "did" should NOT be capitalized.

Finally, let's talk about whether you capitalize the first word after a colon or a dash.

A dash doesn't require any extra thought regarding capitalization. You treat the first word after a dash the same way you'd treat it if it followed a comma.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

This means "Did" should be capitalized. That's what I thought.

Yes, "Did" should be capitalised so the internal fragment makes grammatical sense.
The best way to punctuate his words is:
I was returning to the cabin when--Did I mention we all moved into the cabin?--I heard an unexpected argument
***
Ellipses would not be grammatically incorrect, but would suggest much longer pauses by the speaker than I think the author wants.
***
Parentheses would not be grammatically incorrect either, but are almost always a poor choice for dialogue in fiction.
For example, I would not consider parentheses here unless the aside was almost insignificant, something like "(after midnight)". Even then, I'd probably still go with a pair of commas instead.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

I was wrong. Grammar Girl says "did" should NOT be capitalized.
"Finally, let's talk about whether you capitalize the first word after a colon or a dash. A dash doesn't require any extra thought regarding capitalization. You treat the first word after a dash the same way you'd treat it if it followed a comma."

THEN, I CHANGE MY OPINION. :-)
My conclusions were based on extensions of principles contained in various references.
If Grammar Girl has researched it and given an explicit answer, that's what I'll do from now on.
Thanks for finding that one.

Replies:   Capt Zapp
Capt Zapp

@Ross at Play

Thanks everyone for your input. I have edited my story to put the aside between em-dashes without the aside being capitalized.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Ross at Play

* Unlike parentheses and dashes used in pairs, the interjection may be absolutely anything. There is no requirement for interjections to be grammatically correct.

I still contend, including an 'end of sentence' punctuation, like a period, question or exclamation mark within an aside, is an incorrect usage, regardless of this one exception.

@Switch

I was wrong. Grammar Girl says "did" should NOT be capitalized.

I agree with her view. No matter what a single reference might say, there's no sense violating basic grammar rules within a sentence if you can easily avoid it.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

You quoted my:
* Unlike parentheses and dashes used in pairs, the interjection may be absolutely anything. There is no requirement for interjections to be grammatically correct.

Your reply was:
I still contend, including an 'end of sentence' punctuation, like a period, question or exclamation mark within an aside, is an incorrect usage, regardless of this one exception.

IF I interpret you correctly, we should either:
* agree to disagree; or
* start quoting sources at each other in support of our opinions.
But please, lets not just continue throwing our opinions at each other.
***
If you ask, it would be a day or so before I come up with my quotes from other sources.
***
My understandings are:
(1) ALL PUNCTUATION MARKS are allowed inside in "asides" in the middle of sentences - PROVIDED they are enclosed within parentheses or a pair of dashes.
The rules are:
(a) what is contained within those enclosures must make sense, and it may be multiple sentences!
(b) the remainder of the sentence must make sense if the enclosures and everything inside them was deleted
(c) a very different situation exists when an aside is enclosed in commas. The entire sentences, including the aside, must then make sense

(2) Interjections are a different. All interjections must be adequately separated from the rest of the sentence, and usually a comma is enough. The interjection itself has no rules of grammar. They may end with exclamation points or questions marks, and after a comma the sentence continues on unaffected. They cannot be ended with a full stop which always ends the current sentence.
* The only way I can think of for a sentence to contain a full stop is if full stop is contained within parentheses or a pair of dashes. In that case the full stop is not really inside the main sentence. It appears in the middle of a sentence only because it is part of a unit plonked into the middle of a sentence, which has no effect at all on the grammar of the containing sentence.
***
I am VERY SURE I can find references that support my understanding (1), but not quite so sure about (2).
Either way, I would be interested in anything you can find that contradicts (at least in someone's opinion) my understandings above.

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