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Parentheses (aka round brackets) are easy enough to use in theory. Stick them around some words in the middle of a sentence and you’re good to go. But what about square brackets – what are they for? And where does other punctuation go when there are parentheses involved? Can you put parentheses inside other parentheses? What are the specialised uses?
If you’re the kind of nerd who stays up at night worrying about these things (and even if you’re not), worry no more! We’ve got you covered with this convenient crash course.
What are parentheses for?
Simple. Parentheses are used to surround parenthetical material (like asides, clarification, or commentary).
As with any parenthetical material, the words enclosed within parentheses must not be integral to the surrounding sentence. Conveniently, there’s an easy way to check this: just read the sentence without the contents of the parentheses. If it still makes sense, providing you haven’t made some other creative mistake, the parentheses should be acceptable.
Incorrect: The spaceman (and his elephant) were lost on the moon.
Without the parentheses, the spaceman were lost. This clearly needs fixing.
Technically correct: The spaceman (and his elephant) was lost on the moon.
If this bothers you, try recasting the sentence.
The spaceman (and his elephant) got lost on the moon.
Alternatively, you could make the poor elephant more important to the sentence and remove the parenthetical element altogether.
The spaceman and his elephant were lost on the moon.
Square brackets are not used to enclose parenthetical material. They are mostly used for the insertion of editorial material within quotes.
‘She [the flamingo] was pretty drunk that evening.’
Placement of other punctuation
When a parenthetical statement occurs within a larger sentence, punctuation external to the statement should be placed outside the parentheses.
Luke doesn’t have a harpsichord (too old fashioned), but he does own a melodica and several ukuleles.
When a complete sentence in parentheses is inserted in a larger sentence, it should neither be capitalised nor take a full stop. An internal exclamation mark or question mark is acceptable, however.
Edith had a very eventful day (she saw a polar bear at the airport!) despite her gloomy mood.
Parenthetical statements can stand alone as their own sentences. In this case, the statement should begin with a capital letter and the closing full stop should be placed inside the parentheses.
No one was hurt when the couch was hurled out the window. (It was more good luck than good management that no one was standing on the footpath below.)
There is much controversy (punctuation riots in the streets, probably) about the correct way to deal with parentheses inside parentheses. There are a few main schools of thought:
The first convention instructs writers to avoid using one set of parentheses inside another. Rather, a combination of textual dashes and parentheses should be used.
The weather was apparently awful – Jasper said it was raining cats and dogs (imagine all the claws!) – but they persevered with the hovercar race.
Another option is for square brackets to be used in place of a second set of parentheses.
The weather was apparently awful (Jasper said it was raining cats and dogs [imagine all the claws!]), but they persevered with the hovercar race.
There are those, however, who are of the opinion that parentheses inside parentheses are perfectly ok.
The weather was apparently awful (Jasper said it was raining cats and dogs (imagine all the claws!)), but they persevered with the hovercar race.
Note: the context in which you are writing may determine which of the above three styles is most appropriate. The AGPS style guide, for examples, prefers the first option. If there’s no outside instruction, make your own choice. You’re probably grown up enough.
Time zones are often indicated in parentheses following the time.
The giant squid met the Prime Minister at 8.00am (EST).
Parentheses can be used to indicate short translations in unquoted text.
The only word of Japanese my high-school boyfriend could ever remember was aisukuriimu (ice cream).
Lettered or numbered lists in sentence form can use parentheses to enclose the letters or numbers.
Please bring (1) a peanut, (2) a stegosaurus, and (3) a brick.
Note: the list functions effectively without the numbers in parentheses. The inclusion of letters or numbers in sentence lists depends on context and personal preference and is not integral to lists in sentence form. It can’t hurt to know the right way to do it, though.
A person’s year of birth and year of death can be provided in parentheses.
Llewellyn Poole (2001–1332) was a time traveller.
Upon their first use in a text, acronyms can be explained in parentheses.
SPEW (the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare) is an example of one of the very few times Hermione Granger didn’t think something through.
Likewise, an acronym or abbreviation can be supplied in parentheses on its first use, then used in place of the full term for the remainder of a piece of text.
Thomas A Swift’s Electric Rifle (TASER) is nowadays better known by its acronym (sorry, Thomas).
Parentheses also have various uses in referencing (see comprehensive referencing guides for specific uses within individual referencing systems).
So, there you have it. Parentheses in all their glory. Instead of some pithy concluding remark, we’ll leave you instead with this (questionably) masterful use of parentheses by Lewis Thomas in The medusa and the snail: more notes of a biology watcher.
There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).