Did You Just Interrupt . . . My Sentence?

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What’s an interrupter?

Interrupters—like this little guy right here—are squeezing into more and more contemporary writing. They’re often the goofy/sarcastic “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” asides writers play with in nonacademic writing and online content.

Also called insertions, interrupting phrases, or parenthetical expressions, interrupters are words, phrases, or clauses that break the flow of writing—because if the author feels like it, why not?—to offer additional, can’t-be-held-back, or spur-of-the-moment thoughts (helpful, humorous, “just because”).

Examples of interrupters

“I decided zoodles are definitely better than the other impasta (get it?), spaghetti squash.”

“On Dec. 20th, a new Survivor champion will be crowned. Whomever it may be—Devon? Lauren? Cole coming back into the game off the jury in the biggest twist of all time?—will join the 33 other winners over 34 seasons.”

“Go on a camping trip, lock yourself in your man cave, or just check into a hotel that offers hot continental breakfasts (Mmmm . . . am I the only one who loves continental breakfasts?) and hash out your blueprint.”

Warning: We’re admittedly over-interrupting ourselves in this article, but it’s only to illustrate how written interruptions work. Just remember, in normal practice, use interrupters sparingly—a little salt enhances all flavors; too much makes the thing inedible. (Maybe we should take our own advice!)

How to punctuate an interrupter

One thing is certain: English is now more democratic and less elitist; interrupters give an unpretentious quality to writing that appeals to readers. Of course (womp womp), successful interrupters have to be punctuated accurately. A poorly dressed (naked as a jaybird) interrupter is not an excuse for a random run-on sentence!

In order for them to work, interrupters need to be accessorized with—you guessed it— commas, parentheses, or em dashes. Here’s a rundown of how to accessorize your interrupter. Our examples showcase longer forms of lightly-salted, twinkling interrupting phrases. They also feature a goat:

Using commas: “The goat, who had every reason to believe his lean hindquarters were in danger, hid behind the dumpster at the Greek restaurant.”

The interrupter above (also called an appositive) is the least eye-catching of the three types of interrupting phrases. Maybe it’s an understated elegance, though? This is by far the most common type of interrupter, used in both fiction and nonfiction to provide added detail while maintaining a steady rhythm in the flow of words.

Using parentheses: “The goat (who loved his rump because he invested a lot of time in keeping it lean) hid behind the dumpster at the Greek restaurant.”

Parentheses draw more attention to the interrupter than commas do, but the words between them are downplayed at the same time—at least compared to the dazzling em dash. Usually, whatever’s adorned with parentheses makes no real difference to the meaning of the sentence, but it “feels right” to the author to make the addition. It also jazzes up the rhythm of the sentence. Doo-wop.

Using em dashes: “The goat—who adored his backside, frontside, and every side, and was prepared to save all sides at any cost!—hid behind the dumpster at the Greek restaurant.”

OK, these goat examples are getting baaaad. Nevertheless, we carry on. When em dashes surround an interrupter, the reader will pay the most attention to what’s encased. When you want to put the most emphasis on your interrupter—as here, where the poor goat, loving all facets of himself, is desperate to not have his hindquarters cut up for souvlaki—by all means, em dash the heck out of it.

A well-placed interrupter can be appreciated

Readers and writers appreciate a nicely-timed interrupter. In many cases, the occasional interrupting word-spurt is a welcome intruder because it provides additional information or expresses engaging emotional content, like the author’s attitude toward what’s written. It’s a multipurpose tool that can inject humor, break up text into more digestible bites, and shatter—or maybe just topple a couple stones—the “fourth wall” between author and reader. When gently sprinkled, the device is really effective at creating an informal, intimate language space and keeps the reader’s eyes on the page.

A tool of the online masses

Hands down, interrupters are a tool to create the easy, light-hearted content we read today, especially in blogging and other online writing forms where social-media outlets provide channels for conversational self-expression (and formal writing just doesn’t fit).

This conversational—dare we say “shoot the sh**”—characteristic is the backbone of the written interrupter: It’s a carry-over from spoken conversation and just one of many examples of how, in certain contemporary discourses, written English is becoming increasingly informal (in nerd-speak, this is called informalization or colloquialization of language).

Mainstream interruption

That’s not to say interrupters only appear in the pop-culture blogosphere; established journalism outfits like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal also relish the flavor a dash of interrupters imparts. Keep in mind, for the most part (as far as our not-rigorous-at-all research methodology indicates), this device in journalism is seen more often in opinion pieces, editorials, and articles found in later sections of the paper (y’know, the real-deal physical paper that gets your fingers all smudgy).

This relates to the findings of one definitely-rigorous study not conducted by us: The book Textual Choices in Discourse: A View from Cognitive Linguistics states that readers find news texts “more lively and suspenseful” when authors insert “free indirect thoughts.” But, readers also consider those texts less suitable for the news genre. Maybe they think the “look at me!” interrupters damage the impartialness that characterizes the news.

We hope you’ll pardon all our (many) interruptions, but we think you’re now ready to go out and (SHAZAM!) do some interrupting of your own . . . remember—keep it tasteful!