On our shore he never set it

On our shore he never set it

In Brief

Figure of speech. Professor MacHugh says that "The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession." His observation that conquering Roman armies never came to Ireland (though English ones certainly did) is not merely contained within parentheses. Its syntax fulfills the rhetorical concept of parenthesis––inserting into a sentence a thought that interrupts its grammatical flow.

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Parenthesis (from Greek para- = beside + en- = in + tithenai = to put, so "putting in beside") originally referred not to the now-familiar punctuation marks but to the action that they signal: interrupting a sentence to insert a more or less independent aside, whether for clarification or some other purpose. In The Garden of Eloquence, Henry Peacham emphasizes both the interruption and the fact that the rest of the sentence could stand on its own syntactically if the intruding element were removed: "Parenthesis is a form of speech which setteth a sentence a sunder by the interposition of another...yet being taken away, it leaveth the same speech perfect enough."

Today syntactically independent interpolations are usually set off by parentheses or dashes, while ones that can be grammatically incorporated with a conjunction or an adverb may require only commas. These diversions of syntactic flow can be quite effective at extending and deepening the thought process, but they do distract from the clear articulation of main points. Shakespeare, ever alert to both the uses and abuses of rhetorical figures, conceived the garrulous old Polonius as someone whose train of thought lives in constant peril of being derailed by parenthetical reflections. Gideon Burton (rhetoric.byu.edu) cites this example (there are many others) of his inordinate fondness for parentheses within parentheses:

But what might you think,
When I had seen this hot love on the wing—
As I perceiv'd it (I must tell you that)
Before my daughter told me—what might you,
Or my dear Majesty your queen here, think...?                                                  (Hamlet 2.2.131-35)

Here the piling of parentheses, dashes, and commas on top of one another emphasizes just how many burgeoning syntactic diversions are involved. In comparison MacHugh's parenthesis is pristine, virginal.

John Hunt 2023
Source: essayscam.org.
Instructional slide by Helen Page. Source: slideplayer.com.