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I'm not sure if I can generalize this type of construct, but is there a grammar term for single words surrounded by commas? Consider the following examples:

  1. Let's assume you are given a length of time, say, 10 minutes.
  2. Tristan was, unsurprisingly, late to the meeting.
  3. The plain-looking building was, well, plain.

Are these known as appositives?

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In your examples, it is parenthesis. In other sentences, you might have apposition: My mother, the Queen of England, likes soap operas. –  Cerberus Mar 28 '11 at 20:45
    
@Cerberus: I agree it would be an apposition in that case, but you could still consider it a parenthesis. I would say that a partenthesis is a rethorical/stylistical construct rather then a grammatical one (which an apposition is). –  nico Mar 28 '11 at 21:19
    
@nico: Interesting. I have given this some thought, and now I am not sure. Suppose parenthesis were anything set off by soft punctuation marks. Then the relative clause in the mayor, who was a real jerk, hanged my neighbour would be parenthetical. Then what about she was hanged by the mayor, who was a real jerk? I don't think we want to call this parenthesis, or do we? And she was hanged by the mayor, a real jerk, on her birthday is pretty close. What about I will get her, if she comes, and hang her? Any other subordinate clause? I'm not sure how to define parenthesis. –  Cerberus Mar 29 '11 at 0:08
    
@nico: P.S. I don't think the position of a phrase in the sentence should matter for our calling it parenthesis? Or do you propose so rigid a definition? –  Cerberus Mar 29 '11 at 0:11
    
@Cerberus: that's a very good example. I would call parenthesis any construct between commas (or dashes, or brackets) that can be removed from the sentence without disrupting it. For instance the mayor, who was a real jerk, hanged my neighbour can be rewritten it as the mayor hanged my neighbour, preserving the general sense of the sentence, although removing some information. In that sense, when you have it at the end of the sentence the rule still holds: it's between a comma and a full stop, and you can remove it. Same for subordinates. –  nico Mar 29 '11 at 6:37
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The NOAD reports that one of the meaning of parenthesis is "a word or phrase inserted as an explanation or afterthought into a passage which is grammatically complete without it, in writing usually marked off by brackets, dashes, or commas."

The same dictionary reports that the meaning of apposition (to which I am redirected when I look for the grammatical meaning of appositive) is "a relationship between two or more words or phrases in which the two units are grammatically parallel and have the same referent (e.g. my friend Sue; the first US president, George Washington)."

It seems the right term is parenthesis.

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Are parentheses—the punctuation marks ( and )—considered brackets? If so, is it just coincidence that they share the same word as this term, i.e., a parenthesis marked off by parentheses? –  LucasTizma Mar 29 '11 at 9:53
    
Would it be inappropriate at all to use this construct in more formal writing? –  LucasTizma Mar 29 '11 at 10:13
    
In American English, bracket means each of the following marks: [, ]; in British English it means each of the following marks: (, ), [, ], {, }, 〈 〉. The definition of parenthesis I gave is the same for both American and British English. The definition I reported is grammatical; you can surely use parenthesis in formal writing. –  kiamlaluno Mar 29 '11 at 11:35
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It's called a parenthesis.

See the Wikipedia article about it.

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