Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, parentheses and brackets…
Q: Hi Australian Writers’ Centre, I have a quick question about brackets.
A: Do you mean parentheses or brackets?
Q: I’m not sure.
A: Parentheses are the ones that make the smile/frown in an emoticon 🙂 🙁
Q: Yes them – the roundy ones above 9 and 0 on the keyboard. I don’t really like calling them “parentheses” – it sounds like a bunch of adults studying for their Masters.
A: There is a degree of truth in that.
Q: Hardy ha ha. But anyway, I just need to make sure I’m using my punctuation right with them.
A: Okay, first check that you need them in the first place. They should be an aside, something almost like Kevin Spacey talking directly to the viewer inHouse of Cards, that can stand independently from the action around it. The words outside the parentheses should be able to go about their business without even knowing they exist.
Q: So parentheses act a bit like a cloak of invisibility then?
A: Yes and you can probably ride them into a Quidditch game too.
Q: So, where do the commas or full stops go? Inside or out?
A: It completely depends on the type of sentence. Let’s show you what we mean. If it relates to the same thought as your current sentence, and isn’t a complete sentence itself (a bit like this!), then punctuation continues outside of them. Note though that the exclamation mark in this example is inside, as it relates to those four words.
Q: What if the parentheses are at the end of a sentence?
A: Doesn’t matter. It’s still a short aside that’s part of a whole sentence, so we need to close it with a parenthesis – that’s the singular name – before the full stop at the end of the sentence (that’s the case in this example).
Q: I notice you used the dashes in that last sentence to separate out a thought. Could it have also worked with parentheses?
A: Yes it could; it’s all about whether you want it to be an active participant of the sentence. It can be a close call sometimes. Also, in that case, we already had one set of parentheses, and it may have been jarring to include two.
Q: So when is punctuation inside the parentheses then?
A: When you begin the sentence inside them. (As is the case in this example.)
Q: Oh, okay then. And how long can you leave parentheses open for?
A: Well, you don’t want them to go on forever – but you can have multiple sentences. (A paragraph at the most, and even then, you need to ensure it's necessary to place the whole thing inside parentheses. But never EVER leave a pair of parentheses unclosed – it’s horribly frustrating for the reader.
Q: Like an asterisk that goes nowhere I suppose.*
A: Yes, precisely.
Q: Okay, so am I allowed to have parentheses inside a set of parentheses?
A: You are, although purists would ask that you use the square brackets (to the right of P on the keyboard [and the lowercase option]) to differentiate as we have just shown here. Here’s another example: “The Russian nesting doll (and its sister [and baby sister too]) was sitting on the table.” Note we used “was” and not “were” because everything outside acts as if the inside text is invisible.
Q: Can you tell me more about these square brackets?
Q: Well, um, can you then?
A: Oh, sorry, sure. Apart from the above use, you’ll most commonly see them used to clarify quoted speech – making things easier for the reader. For example, it may be helpful to place someone’s name into the excerpt, as the reader doesn’t have the benefit of the full context of an interview: “She [Valerie Khoo] is not a fan of snakes.” Or if you had a quote that didn’t originally fit grammatically at the beginning of a sentence but you’d like to use it like that (without changing the meaning): “[The] snake was completely harmless.” In all these cases, if we just used parentheses, it would imply the quoted person had said it. This indicates a clarification decision by the journalist or writer.
Q: Well that’s quite enough for one day. I have parenthesis paralysis.