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In a passage of my book, a character tells another that he's "dead". Now, this scene is quite intense, propping up what seems like an imminent fight. The character being threatened has picked up on this, and asks a question in return regarding the information given, with an assumption added. My question is where the comma should come.

Here are the two alternatives (as I see it):

But tell me Gussy, how do you intend to support this claim of my, I assume, imminent death?

Or number two:

But tell me Gussy, how do you intend to support this claim of my, I assume imminent, death?

The first alternative feels much more natural, especially considering how I'd say it. But the second one feels like it makes more sense. I feel it makes more sense because his assumption is the imminence, and not the "death" part. Though, this is quite obvious, considering the "death" part has already been explicitly stated. The imminence on the other hand, is strongly implied. Yet, the first alternative still feels syntactically wrong (if it even relates to syntax). But the first one is also the one that feels the most natural to write. Also, separating the sole adjective of a noun with a comma seems weird.

So, which alternative is correct? If both, which is most common and/or grammatical (if grammaticality is even a factor in such a case)?

EDIT: If I have understood the comments correctly, people are telling me that an alternative could be:

But tell me Gussy, how do you intend to support this claim of my (I assume, imminent) death

That alternative might be a misunderstanding of what the commenters were trying to communicate, but I guess that'll be revealed soon enough.

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  • As with using single/double quote marks to punctuate "quotes within quotes", you could switch to using dashes or brackets to delineate your parenthetical element. Then there's no parsing problem as regards the comma contained therein (which you can't reasonably discard just because of an orthographic clash). Note that the only justification for having that comma within the parenthetical is to reflect a pause in speech (so if you wouldn't pause in speech, discard it anyway; this is nothing to do with whatever else is happening within the containing utterance). Jan 15, 2020 at 13:10
  • I'd use dashes around 'I assume imminent' here, though they're perhaps a little over-muscled. This partly to avoid the 'usage-clash' with the first comma. Jan 15, 2020 at 13:11
  • I think "I assume" is the paranthetical phrase here, as the more likely assumption is that the speaker's death is imminent - talking about the non-imminent death of someone is hardly an assumption.
    – KrisW
    Jan 15, 2020 at 13:31
  • @FumbleFingers I have edited my question to include the alternative I think you meant with your comment. I have a few questions regarding it though. Isn't the use of paranthesis in dialogue a bit weird, as it is an abstract concept modifying information, and not speech. Speech is information, yes, but it carries the implications of being uttered, therefore making me believe punctuation in such a context serves to highlight speech patterns, like pauses, interruptions and whatnot.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 15, 2020 at 13:31
  • @EdwinAshworth See my comment where I tagged FumbleFingers, as it pertains to the same alternative I believe you also suggested.
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 15, 2020 at 13:33

1 Answer 1

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Parenthetical phrases

Speech isn't strictly grammatical - especially when people are doing something else, or have something else on their mind. Sometimes you need to add something to what you're saying, but you've already passed the point at which it would be grammatical to do that. That's where parenthetical phrases come in.

In your sentence, the part "I assume" is a parenthetical phrase: it's a temporary diversion from the speaker's train of thought, dropped into the sentence as it occurs to them. A more grammatically correct form of what they're saying would read like:

  • "How do you intend to support this claim of what I assume is my imminent death?"

.. however, as you've written it, it's as if the speaker begins to say this:

  • "How do you intend to support this claim of my imminent death?"

... but they realise after "my" that they are making an assumption that the death is imminent, and so they insert the additional phrase "I assume" to the sentence to make this clear.

You can use long dashes for parenthetical phrases

Often, parenthetical phrases are separated from their surrounding text using long dashes (the em-dash):

  • "How do you intend to support this claim of my—I assume—imminent death?"

(Typographical tradition says you don't put spaces around an em-dash in English, but some publishers do. It's more a question of style than correctness, but you should be consistent).

... or use parentheses ;)

Or, following a the-clue-is-in-the-name rule, you can also use parentheses (round brackets):

  • "How do you intend to support this claim of my (I assume) imminent death?"

Placing the parentheses

So, how do you decide which is the better place to put those commas, dashes or brackets? Simply delete the parenthetical part entirely and see if what you're left with is still okay as a sentence.

  1. "How do you intend to support this claim of my (I assume) imminent death?"
  2. "How do you intend to support this claim of my (I assume imminent) death?"

To me, without having read the rest of your text, version 1 is a more meaningful sentence, but the context of your dialogue might make version 2 better to you.

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  • I had assumed the word "imminent" was part of the "interjected parenthetical", but I suppose that really depends on whether the "claims" for which the speaker seeks "justification" concern his (supposed or predicted) past or future demise. It does seem to me things become somewhat different if we change imminent to recent, where I find it hard to imagine just the words I assume being "parenthetical". Jan 15, 2020 at 14:39
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    Yes, with "recent", it's a clearer case for the adjective to be inside the "I assume..." part, but for "imminent", by deleting the paranthetical part and looking at the resulting sentences (I might update the answer to include that process), it seemed more natural to me to make the fact that the speaker is making an assumption paranthetical, as opposed to the imminence. Without the rest of the dialogue, though it is hard to give a definitive answer. I went with the version the OP felt was more natural sounding, as they know the context.
    – KrisW
    Jan 15, 2020 at 15:46

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