0

I am editing something that has an appositive phrase surrounded by m-dashes. But the thing that gets the em-dash phrase in it is the first item in a list. I feel like I need a comma, so that it's clear that this first thing is part of a list. It looks kind of like this:

He hopped off his bicycle--which was neatly caught by a volunteer--took off his bike shorts, revealing his swim trunks, ran into the water and started swimming towards the first marker.

How do I get a comma in there (after "volunteer")? Or don't I need one?

The solution I'm currently using is to replace the author's em dashes with parentheses, which allow me to use a comma as well:

He hopped off his bicycle (which was neatly caught by a volunteer), took off his bike shorts, revealing his swim trunks, ran into the water and started swimming towards the first marker.

(Side question: should I have said "appositive" instead of "appositive phrase"?)

  • You don't need a comma in the first example, though the second works OK as well. And another option is "... bicycle, which ... volunteer, took...". But "revealing his swim trunks" might work better in parentheses. – Hot Licks Mar 13 '17 at 22:50
  • Yes. "revealing his swim trunks" is NOT subsequent to "took off his bike shorts". – TrevorD Mar 13 '17 at 23:52
  • @HotLicks - Thanks. Actually I made this sentence up. The original was much more technical. Don't you want to write an answer which I can then accept? – aparente001 Mar 14 '17 at 0:01
  • Writing an answer would require using all those icky words like "appositive". – Hot Licks Mar 14 '17 at 0:05
  • @HotLicks - and then I'd get the answer to my side question, and would be more comfortable in future conveying my question to all you helpful folks. – aparente001 Mar 14 '17 at 0:07
3

Your sentence starts with a parallel series of four actions ("hopped off," "took off," "ran into," and "started swimming towards") that the triathlete (or whatever) performs. But then it adds a couple of asides ("which was neatly caught by a volunteer" and "revealing his swim trunks") that would produce a visual morass in an undifferentiated, commas-only approach to internal punctuation:

He hopped off his bicycle, which was neatly caught by a volunteer, took off his bike shorts, revealing his swim trunks, ran into the water, and started swimming towards the first marker.

As you note, one way to subordinate the secondary elements is with parentheses, but that approach would leave you with two sets of them, which is a bit much for most people (not me, obviously):

He hopped off his bicycle (which was neatly caught by a volunteer), took off his bike shorts (revealing his swim trunks), ran into the water, and started swimming towards the first marker.

Using em dashes is not an appealing alternative, since using two sets of them in one sentence makes it extremely difficult for readers to figure out which dash goes with which fragment:

He hopped off his bicycle—which was neatly caught by a volunteer—took off his bike shorts—revealing his swim trunks—ran into the water, and started swimming towards the first marker.

And mixing em dashes and parentheses is too exotic for my taste, especially since it doesn't help readers identify "hopped off his bicycle" as the first of a set of four parallels:

He hopped off his bicycle—which was neatly caught by a volunteer—took off his bike shorts (revealing his swim trunks), ran into the water, and started swimming towards the first marker.

To my mind, the strongest way to distinguish the primary (and parallel) series of elements in your sentence from the sentence's secondary elements is to use a semicolon to signal the end of each of the first three parallel limbs and to use a comma to separate the main action described within that limb from the aside (if any) that also appears there:

He hopped off his bicycle, which was neatly caught by a volunteer; took off his bike shorts, revealing his swim trunks; ran into the water; and started swimming towards the first marker.

Obviously, your universe of options expands tremendously if you allow yourself to tinker with the actual wording of the sentence. But if you want to clarify the sentence without changing a word, using semicolons and commas to indicate what goes with what may be your best bet.

  • What I really wanted was to put a comma after the second em dash, but it didn't look right. I take your answer to mean that I can't, in fact, put a comma after an em dash. // Any help with my terminology? – aparente001 Mar 14 '17 at 12:25
  • @aparente001: Combining em dashes with commas and semicolons used to be common in the 1700s and well into the 1800s, but it is very unusual in published writing today, and would look overpunctuated to most readers. Also, if you usually use em dashes without letter spaces, leaving a space after the comma would look as though you were using the dash to join the preceding word to the comma instead of to the following word. ... – Sven Yargs Mar 14 '17 at 17:07
  • ...As for the identity of the secondary phrases, I would call "which was neatly caught by a volunteer" an independent clause subordinated to bicycle, and I would call “revealing his swim trunks” a participial phrase. Neither phrase is an appositive, which refers to an equivalent expression that could take the place of the immediately preceding term. For example, if the third parallel limb had said “ran into the water, Lake Chad,” “Lake Chad” would be an appositive, equivalent to “the water.” – Sven Yargs Mar 14 '17 at 17:07
  • Okay, not an appositive. I guess I should just avoid the attempt to describe the grammar and just describe my puncuation problem. // Very interesting what you said about dashes and commas. Would strengthen the answer to include. – aparente001 Mar 14 '17 at 17:50
0

Hard cases make bad law, and tortured sentences torture readers. However this sentence is punctuated and whatever the proper names of its parsed parts, it will still torture. It needs to be redrafted, recast, reworked, rewritten--i.e., ya might oughtta fix it first.

"took off his bike shorts, revealing his swim trunks": change this to, e.g., "stripped to his swim trunks", thereby solving the "not subsequent problem" noted by TrevorD. This keeps the action moving, eliminating a distraction.

Eliminate "which was" in "which was neatly caught by a volunteer"--whatever way you decide to punctuate it.

Parenthetically we might also note that the order of events in triathlons is swim-bike-run, and as these races have become more popular, designers of athletic gear have developed clothing that works in all phases of the contest. Time taken in the transition phases, T1 and T2, of the contest count in overall time as well as the time taken on the three events themselves. Even if we imagine a bike-swim contest, what did the boy do with his helmet, which is required at all times while the rider is on the bike?

That said, I like Sven Yargs' semicolon solution to the original sentence, but the result, while grammatical, will still torture and is likely to be a let-down for readers seeking the excitement of the race.

  • It was an example, constructed by me. The original was even more tortured -- it was from a paper in the social sciences. – aparente001 Mar 14 '17 at 19:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.