15 Purposes for Parentheses

By Mark Nichol

Parentheses are versatile tools for writers. These examples illustrate their uses; use them to enclose the following:

Examples, directions, explanations, and clarifications:

1. “Retain ampersands when they appear as part of an official name (Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry’s).”

2. “At that point, you may want to consult with a professional. (Refer to the Resources chapter for a list of tax advisers.)”

3. “Here is a selective glossary of editing and production terms. (Synonyms are in italics; cross-referenced terms are in bold italics.)”

4. “Precede the dollar amount with the initials US only to avoid confusion (in, say, an article about Australia, where the basic unit of currency is also called the dollar).”

Numerals that confirm a spelled-out number in a contract:

5. “The confirmation letter is due within thirty (30) days.”

Abbreviations (usually) after the first reference to the full version of the term:

6. “The country’s import and export levels are regulated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).”

Note: If the abbreviation is well known or is used again within the next sentence or two after the full name, omit the parenthesized abbreviation immediately after it.

Numbers or letters that distinguish items in a run-in list:

7. “The constituent parts are (1) the thingamajig, (2) the whatchamacallit, and (3) the whatsit.”

Note: Sometimes, only the close parenthesis is used in this format. However, usually, neither numbers nor parentheses are necessary in such cases.

Modifying words or phrases, or interjections:

8. “The writer will (one hopes) produce well-crafted prose.”

9. “It turns out that he had (gasp!) told the truth.”

Translations, pronunciations, or equivalents:

10. “She ran from the kuma (bear).”

11. “Stay at the warung (wah-ROONG) near the mosque.”

12. “The distance from Marseille to Paris is 771 kilometers (479 miles).”

The area code in a phone number or a unit in a mathematical or logical expression:

13. “(213) 867-5309”

14. “a(b) = c”

In-text citations:

15. “However, the literature is ambivalent on this issue (Howard, Fine, and Howard 1925; Marx et al. 1912).”

Punctuation in Parentheses
A full sentence in parentheses is capitalized and is followed by a period preceding the closing parenthesis: “Have these resources on hand before you begin. (Items listed in parentheses are desirable but not essential.)”

A partial sentence in parentheses is not capitalized and is not followed by a period but may precede a question mark or exclamation point: “Use a dark, fine-pointed pen (erasable pens allow for neat alteration) or pencil.” “Now that you’re finished (you are finished, aren’t you?), we will proceed.”

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10 Responses to “15 Purposes for Parentheses”

  • Nick

    As a writer, I find parentheses most useful for drafts/editing. When I’m working on a draft and I get stuck, need to look something up, or really don’t like a particular sentence or paragraph, I’ll use parentheses to take a quick note, such as (insert car ride scene here), or (what is the acceleration of a mustang?), or (rewrite this sentence). This allows me to keep writing.

    Once I finish a draft, I click “edit”, then “find” and I search for “(“. Then I fix up the section in question.

  • Gwen Hankins

    Parentheses are my “sticky notes” in my manuscript. I over use them when I “speak”, for instance on my blog, some may consider it bad form-I think–its my blog-lol-and it’s me! It’s not how I write when I’m writing my manuscript. I love parentheses! It’s like reassurance that you haven’t left information out–*chuckle*. Peace, love this article!

  • Francoise

    Thanks for another good article. When may (should) one use hyphens in place of parentheses? For example,

    8. “The writer will (one hopes) produce well-crafted prose.”

    “The writer will – one hopes – produce well-crafted prose.”

  • Cassie Tuttle

    Parentheses can be a useful tool when writing. However, for the life of me, I cannot understand the modern logic behind the second example above (numerals that confirm a spelled-out number in a contract). Having worked in the legal field for 27 years, I’ve seen it a lot.

    Long, long ago, when documents were written out by hand, perhaps that clarification was necessary. But in the computer age, I think it’s simply redundant. And it drives me (me) batty.

  • Precise Edit

    @Francoise: Never. Rather, you can use em dashes in place of parentheses when indicating a parenthetical expression.

    Ex: My brother–you met him last night–is an opera singer. (I’m using double hyphens to indicate an em dash. If I were actually writing this in a formal document, I would have used actual em dashes.)

    Also, “should” really isn’t an issue here. This is a style choice.

    In example #8, I would prefer commas around “one hopes,” not parentheses or em dashes, for two reasons: 1) commas separate interpolated asides, which this is, and 2) I don’t like the way they look.

    Ok, that second reason is highly subjective, but, in my opinion, the overuse of both em dashes and parentheses make a document look ugly.

  • Precise Edit

    Ok, that’s interesting.

    In the example in my previous comment, I used double hyphens in place of em dashes. They were converted to dashes, more or less. In any case, this is another way to show that example:

    My brother[em dash]you met him last night[em dash]is an opera singer.

  • Francoise

    @Precise. Thanks for the explanation. English is not my mother tongue and I had never even heard of the em dash, or any other dash, for that matter. I found the Wikipedia page on “dash” and am now studying it.

    Thanks again.

    By the way, I typed the Alt+0151 here for this post and got a smiley face. I’ll have to learn the HTML dashes too.

  • Cresilda

    Thanks for the different purposes of parentheses Mark.
    @Precise: thanks for sharing your thoughts, your comments are very helpful as well.

  • Paul Gray

    When describing thoughts or points that might occur within other thoughts or points which have been set off with parentheses, would it be proper to use nested parentheses, or does that apply only in mathematics? Example: “We will use several companies to do the work (ABC Company is the main contractor (sub-contracted to XYZ Corp.) for all construction jobs) which will begin next week.”

    Is this a permissible use of nested parentheses, or is such usage strictly illegal and confusing? In what way would this be better worded?

  • Mark Nichol

    Paul:

    If necessary, straight brackets — [ and ] — should be used within parentheses, just as single quotation marks are used within double quotation marks, but the usage should be avoided if possible. An alternative solution to your example follows:

    “We will use several companies to do the work (ABC Company, subcontracting to XYZ Corp., is the main contractor for all construction jobs), which will begin next week.”

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