A Complete Guide to Parentheses and Brackets

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This post discusses the functions of parentheses and brackets, which are used to set off portions of text from the whole for various purposes.

Parentheses, almost exclusively appearing in pairs, are usually employed in the same manner as a pair of commas or dashes, though they suggest de-emphasis of the content within (as opposed to commas, which convey a neutral insertion of information, and dashes, which highlight the text between them). Parentheses, in addition to being employed to interject examples or a brief digression, enclose an abbreviation, acronym, or initialism or a translation, or a numerical equivalent of a spelled-out number. They also set off a cross-reference, as in “For more details, read the associated case study (pages 113–119)” or “Gene therapy is discussed briefly here. (See chapter 12 for more information.)”

Parentheses may frame a plural ending to indicate that a word can be read as either singular or plural, as in “Enter the title(s) of the document(s) on the asset list,” or to allow for a gender-neutral reading, as in “Next, (s)he should consult with an adviser.”

Note that one of a pair of parentheses is called a parenthesis. This term also pertains in general to setting text off from other text regardless of which punctuation signals the separation. (Two or more instances of parenthesis might be referred to as parentheses.) Text that is set off by complementary punctuation marks is sometimes (including often in posts on this site) referred to as a parenthetical phrase, or simply a parenthetical.

A single close parenthesis is sometimes used in place of a period when enumerating, as in “The three types of rock are 1) igneous, 2) metamorphic, and 3) sedimentary.” (An open parenthesis is not used in isolation.)

A few more guidelines about parentheses follow:

  • Parentheses should not be used in immediate proximity to each other or within another set of parentheses; in the latter case, use brackets instead (or commas or dashes).
  • Avoid including more than one sentence, or including an extensive sentence, within parentheses.
  • Avoid situating a complete sentence in parentheses within another sentence.
  • Avoid using parentheses too frequently. Consider employing commas or dashes instead, or otherwise revising text so that parentheses do not appear repeatedly in one piece of content.
  • Parentheses framing text in italics, boldface, or another style treatment differing from the default text should not share that formatting, but should rather be in the the same type as the surrounding text.

A complete sentence within parentheses should end with a period or other terminal punctuation before the close parenthesis, and the preceding text should be followed by terminal punctuation:

“. . . then it is fair game. (There are always exceptions, of course.)”

If text enclosed in parentheses does not comprise a complete sentence and ends a framing sentence, the terminal punctuation of the framing sentence should immediately follow the close parenthesis.

“. . . then it is fair game (with exceptions).”

Text in parentheses in the midst of a sentence is not punctuated, regardless of whether it is a complete sentence (unless the terminal punctuation is a question mark or an exclamation point), and the first word of a complete sentence in parentheses is not capitalized:

“. . . then (there are always exceptions, of course) it is fair game.”

“. . . then (with exceptions) it is fair game.”

Bracket, in American English, refers to square brackets. (In British English, the term pertains to round brackets, or what in American English are called parentheses.) Brackets have limited uses, including

  • adding contextual information within quoted material “She spoke to [Smith],” where the bracketed text replaces one or more spoken words to provide clarity (in this example, replacing the vague him) or to add a word or phrase omitted in the spoken or written quotation. Sometimes, the replaced word or phrase is retained, as in “She spoke to him [Smith],” but this unnecessary.
  • when framing the word sic (“thus”), borrowed from Latin, confirming that in quoted material, an error or confusing wording is faithfully reproduced from the original text and not a transcription error, as in “The comment read, ‘You are definately [sic] out of your mind.’” (Note that sic is italicized, but the brackets are not.)
  • parenthesizing within parentheses, as in “Submit form 13F (Petition for Appeal [formerly titled Petition for Grievance]) within thirty days.” (When possible, revise sentences to avoid this type of construction.)
  • clarifying, in formal writing, that the first letter of quoted material is, the source material, in a different case, as in “[A]s you would have others do unto you” is the gist of the admonition,” where the quoted material is the second half of the original statement and, thus, as is lowercase in the source text.
  • framing ellipses to indicate that a word or phrase has been omitted, although generally, the ellipses on their own are sufficient.
  • modifying a quotation, perhaps for grammatical agreement, when partially paraphrasing, as when “I agree with his account of the incident, as improbable as it sounds,” is reported, “He said that he ‘agrees[s] with his account of the incident, as improbable as it sounds.’”

Parentheses and brackets both have distinct functions in computing, linguistics, math, and science contexts that are not described here. In addition, similar symbols include curly brackets {/} and angle brackets , which have specialized uses not discussed in this post.

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14 thoughts on “A Complete Guide to Parentheses and Brackets”

  1. Unfortunately, you have punctuated something backwards:
    The original: parenthesizing within parentheses, as in “Submit form 13F (Petition for Appeal [formerly titled Petition for Grievance]) within thirty days.”
    Corrected: parenthesizing within parentheses, as in “Submit form 13F [Petition for Appeal (formerly titled Petition for Grievance)] within thirty days.”
    For parenthesizing within parentheses, the proper format is as follows, but I have extended this to three levels: { [ (hello) ] } as a more complete example.

  2. Another use of brackets is in shortening quotations:
    Original: …the Duke of Inverness’s imprisonment on the Isle of Wight lead to a great constitutional crisis…
    Becomes: “[hi]s imprisonment on the Isle of Wight lead to a great constitutional crisis…”,
    just as long as the context made it clear who “he” was.
    In other words, we don’t want to write “Duke of Inverness” three, four, five times.

  3. In the English of the 21st century, “deemphasis” is not hyphenated.
    Hence, we have the cooperating pair of words “preemphasis” and “deemphasis”, as well as the related words reemphasis, reemphasize, underemphasize, and overemphasize. There is not a hyphen to be seen in any of these.

  4. Dale:
    Although brackets are considered a “stronger” (that is, more intrusive) punctuation mark than parentheses, the hierarchy of brackets within parentheses is correct as described in the post. Also, a name that appears repeatedly in a quotation should not be paraphrased (within brackets) as a pronoun just for the sake of avoiding repetition; instead, entire phrases and sentences can be paraphrased outside the quotation marks and without bracketing. In addition, when paraphrasing the possessive form of a proper name as a pronoun, the name should be replaced not by [hi]s but by [his].

  5. De-emphasis, like many (but not all) other words in which the last letter of a prefix and the first letter of a word to which it is affixed are the same, is correctly styled in the post.

  6. Mark, the words preemphais and deemphasis are used all the time in audio work, telecommunications, broadcasting…
    They have been used almost as long as record players have been.

  7. I used the phrase “the Duke of Inverness’s imprisonment” especially to reemphasize the correct was to show possession in words that end in “s” and “ss”, as you have pointed before.
    Another example would be “Congress’s lack of action…”
    Common nouns and pronouns can also get the treatment of
    “some long work ending in s” becomes [it]s or [thi]s.

  8. Yes, to weigh in for no real purpose, the original is correct. The order of precedence is braces within brackets within parentheses.

  9. Nope, Venqax, the order of { [ ( ) ] } is universal. Ask any mathematician, engineer, computer scientist, physicist, chemist, like me.
    If there was any other way to do it, it is completely old-fashioned. Let’s live in the 21st century now.

  10. Dale A. Wood generally seems to have dissatisfaction with Mark’s posts. I suggest that D.A.W. create a rival writing tips website (“Dale A. Wood’s Daily Writing Tips, perhaps). While I’ll stay with Mark’s website, Dale would have the satisfaction of posting tips that conform to his own personal whims.

  11. Here’s something I can’t find the answer to anywhere. What if you want to insert some punctuation into a quotation because you feel the existing punctuation isn’t so great? For instance, what if you want to insert a comma into a quotation for clarity? Would you place the comma within brackets? For instance:

    “Joe walked across the street[,] and then he decided that the grass wasn’t really greener on the other side, so he had a sudden urge to go back.”

    Would that work? 🙂

  12. Sam:

    That’s an interesting question. In this case, the omission of the comma isn’t incorrect, though its inclusion is preferable. I would leave this sentence as is. If, however, inserted or omitted punctuation is egregiously wrong (that is, you’re embarrassed to reproduce the quoted material), you could insert [sic]: “Joe walked, [sic] across the street . . . .” That’s obtrusive, though. Whenever possible, avoid reproducing an outright error, perhaps by paraphrasing instead.

  13. Thank you, Mark.

    There are three double quotation marks here:
    clarifying, in formal writing, that the first letter of quoted material is, the source material, in a different case, as in “[A]s you would have others do unto you” is the gist of the admonition,”

    Should it be:
    “'[A]s you would have others do unto you’ is the gist of the admonition,”

    Also, should “is” be moved:
    the first letter of quoted material, the source material, is in a different case

    Also, I think “agrees[s]” should be “agree[s]”
    (Delete unbracketed “s”)

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