What Are Interrupters (You Know, Like This One) Doing in Our Prose?

Interrupting Phrases Are Popping Up All Over

interrupters
(Lucia Lambriex/Getty Images)

It's a playful device favored by bloggers, diarists, and (woo hoo!) the staff writers at Entertainment Weekly. But now--get ready for it--the interrupting phrase is popping up in more formal kinds of writing as well.

Unlike appositives and conventional modifiers, which rename or qualify other words in a sentence, the contemporary interrupter is a (nerd alert) metadiscursive trick. The writer pauses to address the reader directly and signal her feelings about the news she's reporting.

Consider these examples from a recent issue of EW:

  • Not only does Amanda have anxiety attacks tonight, but Ella tries to be--yuck--sweet.
  • Travesty: Wilhelmina has a perforated ulcer. Bigger travesty: At the hospital she has a--brace yourself--roommate.
  • Tara barely had time to register that Franklin would still be alive--hooray!--before Sookie had her and Alcide helping to wrap Bill in a tarp so they could move him.
  • The press release (it's real!): "Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary teams up with CBS to release 'The Colonoscopy Song.'"

The interrupter can be the verbal equivalent of a wink, a smirk, or a smack to the forehead. It may be a single word (usually an interjection), a lengthy clause, or--you guessed it--something in between. You can slip one in parenthetically (like this), or use dashes to call attention to it --cowabunga!--like that.

But this intrusive maneuver isn't limited to the pop-culture press.

One sign of the convergence of journalism and blogging is the growing presence of interrupters in upscale newspapers:

  • Cash funds offered by the Pru (named Cash Haven Trust, would you believe?) and Clerical Medical also lost money because they were exposed to mortgage debt.
    (Paul Farrow, "Good Fund Investors Must Look Beyond the Name." The Daily Telegraph [UK], August 16, 2010)
  • So let's beat back this unnecessary, unfair and--let's not mince words--cruel attack on working Americans. Big cuts in Social Security should not be on the table.
    (Paul Krugman, "Attacking Social Security." The New York Times, August 15, 2010)
  • No such problem--hooray!--at the Tories' forthcoming party conference, which promises a Pride dinner in Birmingham followed by a disco at Nightingales, Brum's premier gay nightclub.
    (Stephen Bates, "Diary." The Guardian [UK], August 11, 2010)
  • Ironically, Odgen Jr. was the only one of the five children who got to live the life he wanted. (He was also the only one to marry--happily, go figure--to a wealthy railroad widow who left him a huge fortune when she died six years after the wedding in 1910.)
    (Yvonne Abraham, "A House Full of Tales." The Boston Globe, August 1, 2010)

Along with the crafty use of fragments, contractions, and the pronouns "I" and "you," interrupters can add a more conversational, down-home flavor to our prose. But as with any potentially distracting device (teacher is talking), let's not overwork them.