The Bubble of Parentheses

Like bubbles, parentheses have a wonderful curve to them. Perhaps that curve is what led to the primary use of parentheses—setting off information by wrapping it within a typographic bubble.

Parentheses are not the only punctuation mark used for enclosing ancillary information. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, commas can be used to enclose words that provide extra, but unnecessary, information. For example,

Historians have come to believe that Vikings, medieval Norse, were the first Europeans to discover North America.

But for words that you really want to set off, either because they will be interesting to only a few readers or will be jarring to many readers, Chicago recommends using parentheses. Readers understand they can ignore the contents within the parentheses and still get all the information they need to know.

The Associated Press Style Book (another gold standard style book of publishing), on the other hand, states “Parentheses are jarring to readers. Because they do not appear on some news service printers, there is also the danger that material inside them may be misinterpreted.”

Why does one style guide recommend using parentheses to avoid jarring readers and the other guide recommends the opposite for the same reason? I don’t know. What I do know is that parentheses are sometimes useful, sometimes overused, and sometimes used incorrectly. This article will  help you in knowing when to use these handy punctuation tools.

When Parentheses are Useful

Because commas are used for so many purposes, it’s sometimes helpful in complex sentences to exchange a pair of commas containing ancillary information and replace them with parentheses. Doing so helps readers navigate through a sentence, like this one, and understand what’s critical (and what’s not critical) to know.

Sometimes a writer wants to include information not grammatically connected with the rest of the sentence and wants to avoid giving readers a grammatical slap to the head. Want an example? Imagine you’re reading a paper on chemistry. Which of the two sentences below more adroitly conveys its information?

  • The ancient Greeks’ belief in four elements Fire, Earth, Air, and Water influenced alchemists from ancient times through to the Renaissance.
  • The ancient Greeks’ belief in four elements (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) influenced alchemists from ancient times through to the Renaissance.

Did you notice a slight mental hiccup while reading the first sentence? You probably had to pause and sort through word combinations before you were able to equate four elements to Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. In the second sentence, the parentheses automatically indicated the named elements were separate from the rest of the sentence.

When Parentheses are Overused

While parentheses have the ability to signal readers the enclosed information is optional, considerate writers will not fill their sentences and paragraphs with unnecessary information. For example,

This paragraph (written to illustrate a point) uses parentheses correctly. But even using parentheses to enclose optional material (here’s more parenthetical information) still requires the reader to work a little (not much, but a little) more to keep sense of the information presented. Readers who have ever braided hair (macrame or rope) know it’s harder to keep the weave correct as more and more strands are added to the pattern.

Having to read around the word bubbles is a bit like having a conversation with someone who keeps going off on tangents when you just want to understand the main point. If you want to continually show off your knowledge, use footnotes or similar techniques to direct readers to where the extra information can be found. A little restraint in the main body of text will help you convey your points more clearly to your readers.

When Parentheses are Used Incorrectly

The most common misuse of parentheses that I see is at the end of sentences. Luckily it’s not hard to properly place the ending parenthesis (note the spelling change) once you know these two rules:

  • If the parentheses enclose only some of the words in the sentence, then the ending mark goes outside of ending parenthesis. You want to indicate the end of the entire sentence (not just the end of the extra information).
  • If the parentheses enclose the entire sentence or span across multiple sentences, then the ending mark goes inside the ending parenthesis. (You’re basically putting a bubble around the entire thing.)

I hope this post has given you some helpful tips on using parentheses in your own writing. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is my preferred main style guide, does recommend other uses for parentheses. Using them to set off information, however, is by far their most common use in business writing.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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2 Responses to The Bubble of Parentheses

  1. Hey there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.
    I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

  2. Hello Jill,

    Glad you like my posts. I don’t write many, but I try to make them informative and fun to read. I do have a Twitter account. It’s @writingjim.