Parentheses, such as em dash and ellipses, is an often overused element of punctuation in writing.
In some cases, parentheses can be useful, but more often than not they are unnecessary and can even serve as a distraction, weaken your writing.
In this guide to parentheses, we explain what parentheses are, the difference between parentheses and brackets, when to use parentheses and when to avoid them, basic grammar rules, and finally, alternatives to parentheses.
What are parentheses?
While learning the basics of parentheses, I asked a teacher to compare them to cupping your hands around your mouth, ready for a whisper. Your hands look like a pair of parentheses.
Parentheses work the same in grammar. It is a pair of punctuation marks that enclose or highlight information.
Parentheses should not be confused with parentheses, less technically referred to as square parentheses, which are often used when edit quotes. See: [ ]
Square brackets are also used when you have parentheses in parentheses, which is more common in technical writing. Here is an example:
(The results [Figure 4] were inconclusive.)
When to use parentheses
Rule # 1 you need to remember is to use parentheses sparingly.
AP Stylebook puts it best: “The parentheses are shocking to the reader.” Like a whisper, they can get too distracting.
Even so, there are cases where parentheses will be needed. Looked.
1. Use parentheses to emphasize information (usually non-essential)
Webster’s New World College Dictionary of Punctuation Rules explain that parentheses are used “to include explanatory, supplementary, or illustrative material.”
Even AP Stylebook, who is not particularly fond of parentheses, says, “However, sometimes parentheses are the only effective way to insert the necessary basic or reference information.”
But “Working with Words: A Handbook for Editors and Media Editors, ”One of my favorite writing resources, points out that parentheses should be used to trigger not essential information. This is the key.
One of my former editors (N / O to Heather van der Hoop) advised me to never put information in brackets unless I feel comfortable removing it. His rule reinforced the fact that this information had to be non-essential.
Take a look at the sentence above:
One of my former editors (N / O to Heather van der Hoop) advised me to never put information in brackets unless I feel comfortable removing it.
The reader doesn’t really need to know my old publisher’s name – it’s just explanatory background information – so I put it in parentheses. I would be comfortable with removing this information as it would not change the meaning of the sentence.
Let’s take a look at another example, but this one highlights the wrong way to use parentheses:
WRONG: The president agreed to sign the new bill (although he strongly opposed it last week).
The fact that the president signed a bill that he denounced a week before is important, essential information for your story. In this case you would like to take this essential information outside parentheses and rewrite it with a comma or a hyphen em.
RIGHT: The president agreed to sign the new bill, even though he strongly opposed it last week.
If you are not sure whether the information is essential or not, use this rule from Merriam webster: “To test if a clause is indeed non-essential, leave it aside and reread the sentence. If the essence of the sentence is neither lost nor distorted, then yes, it is not essential… ”
One more thing: you can also use parentheses in quotation marks to add explanatory information that the speaker may not have included:
“My opponent (Sam Smith) didn’t let go and I got absolutely exhausted.
However, if you often use parentheses in quotes, you might be better off paraphrasing.
Her opponent, Sam Smith, did not give up and she became exhausted.
2. Use parentheses in specialized cases
This second rule highlighted in Webster’s Rules of Punctuation is simple: use parentheses around numbers or digits in a list in your text.
Here is an example:
The game was simple: (1) Draw a card, (2) guess higher or lower and (3) put it down.
Note that AP Stylebook tends to prefer bulleted lists if there are more than four items in the list.
When do not use parentheses
Before we jump into our grammar overview of parentheses, let’s go over some common examples where parentheses are often misused if you are following the AP style guide.
Note: These rules will ultimately depend on the house style of the post, so it’s always worth checking out their site!
- Abbreviations for organizations: When writing the full name of an organization, you may be tempted to drop the abbreviation in parentheses after the full name and then use the abbreviation throughout the rest of the article, for example: American Society of News Editors (ASNE).
However, AP Stylebook encourages editors to avoid “alphabet soup” and use the full name of the organization throughout the article, unless it is a more common abbreviation. or universally recognizable.
- Phone numbers: You may be tempted to include the area code of a phone number in parentheses, but AP Stylebook wants editors to use dashes.
WRONG: (555) 555-5555
- Time zones: Parentheses are also not required when specifying time zones in the United States.
WRONG: 5 p.m. EST
RIGHT: 5 p.m. EST
You may use parentheses if you are writing the time outside of the continental United States. The parentheses trigger this additional, clarifying (although not essential) information.
They broke into the art gallery at 9 a.m. (3 a.m. EDT) in Paris.
How to use parentheses
Parentheses are always in pairs, and there are two easy ways to break down grammar rules.
1. Using parentheses around full sentences
If you are enclosing a full sentence (or independent clause) in parentheses, punctuate as if the parentheses weren’t there. It means include punctuation inside parentheses and proceeding normally.
They both knew he was wrong, but he refused to admit it. (At just 19, he still had his work cut out for him.)
You can also use a question mark or exclamation point, if applicable.
2. Using parentheses around incomplete sentences
If you put an incomplete sentence (or a dependent clause) in parentheses, the punctuation disappears outside parentheses, and you don’t capitalize the first word.
The above sentence is an example of an incomplete sentence in parentheses, but here is another example (in case you need it).
If you want to add an exclamation point or a question mark in parentheses, you can. It would look like this:
The above sentence is an example of an incomplete sentence in parentheses, but here is another example (in case you need it!).
Like any punctuation, there are also more complex rules to consider. For example, according to Webster’s rules of punctuation, when a complete declarative sentence in parentheses is part of another sentence, no period is required. Here is an example of what it would look like:
Her 94-year-old grandmother (remember she was born in 1927) was an iPad witch.
You will not end an incomplete sentence in parentheses with a comma, semicolon, colon, or period.
WRONG: I lost my suitcase (lime green, hot pink and orange), but the woman who was sitting next to me on the plane helped me find it.
But you can add a comma, semicolon, colon, or period, just after the closing parentheses.
RIGHT: I lost my suitcase (lime green, hot pink and orange), but the woman who was sitting next to me on the plane helped me find it.
Alternatives to parentheses
Now that you are armed with this information, we need to remind you: use parentheses sparingly!
“The temptation to use parentheses is a clue that a sentence is distorted,” explains AP Stylebook. “Try to write it another way. If a sentence must contain incidental elements, commas or two dashes are often more effective. “
These two simple alternatives that generally work very well:
- Dashes Em
If you find that you have a bad habit of using parentheses as a writing crutch, a grammar checker like ProWritingAid suggest ways to strengthen your writing.
Pro tip: it also has a Google Doc add-on.
So, of course, sometimes parentheses are needed – if they are, now you will know how to use them correctly – but more often than not you can do without them and make your writing even stronger and clearer with a simple adjustment.
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