Notes on Parentheses

(A Brief History of Parentheses, Plus How to Use Them)

English novelist and essayist D.H. Lawrence believed that "the parentheses are by far the most important part of a non-business letter" (letter to Blanche May Rust Jennings, April 15, 1908). (Roc Canals Photography/Getty Images)

In this article, we look at where parentheses came from, what purposes they have served, and how they should be used in our writing today.

British novelist Neil Gaiman really likes parentheses:

I admired [C.S. Lewis's] use of parenthetical statements to the reader, where he would just go talk to you. Suddenly the author would address a private aside to you, the reader. It was just you and him. I'd think, "Oh, my gosh, that is so cool! I want to do that! When I become an author, I want to be able to do things in parentheses." I liked the power of putting things in brackets.

(Neil Gaiman interviewed by Hank Wagner in Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman. Macmillan, 2008)

American author Sarah Vowell also likes parentheses, but she's self-conscious about using them:

"I have a similar affection for the parenthesis (but I always take most of my parentheses out, so as not to call undue attention to the glaring fact that I cannot think in complete sentences, that I think only in short fragments or long, run-on thought relays that the literati call stream of consciousness but I still like to think of as disdain for the finality of the period)."

("Dark Circles." Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World. Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Editors have their own reasons for discouraging the use (or at least the overuse) of parentheses. "[T]hey are distracting and should be avoided when possible," says Rene Cappon in The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation (2003).

"Commas and dashes can also do the job of parentheses, often more effectively."

Origins of Parentheses

The symbols themselves first showed up in the late 14th century, with scribes using virgulae convexae (also called half moons) for a variety of purposes. By the end of the 16th century, the parenthesis (from the Latin for "insert beside") had begun to assume its modern role:

"Parenthesis is expressed by two half circles, which in writing enclose some perfit branch, as not mere impertinent, so not fullie concident to the sentence, which it breaketh, and in reading warneth us, that the words inclosed by them ar to be pronounced with a lower & quikker voice, then the words either before them or after them."

(Richard Mulcaster, Elementarie, 1582)

In her book Quoting Speech in Early English (2011), Colette Moore notes that parentheses, like other marks of punctuation, originally had both "elocutionary and grammatical functions. . . . . [W]e see that whether through vocal or syntactic means, the parentheses are taken as a means to downplay the significance of the material enclosed within."

Parentheses Within Parentheses

Like a baseball game headed into extra innings, parenthetical remarks have the potential to go on indefinitely—a point nimbly illustrated by Lewis Thomas in the opening paragraph of his essay "Notes on Punctuation":

"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"

(The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher. Viking, 1979)

On those rare occasions when a parenthesis within a parenthesis is unavoidable, most style guides recommend that we switch to square brackets to highlight the distinction.

Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson followed this practice, comically and self-consciously, in an apologetic letter to his sister:

"But now, then (I can't make up my mind which) I really didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I know that it must be hell (that would just slip in [I hate parentheses]) to tinkle about by the numbers & have dumbbells to instruct, but at that it doesn't sound like a bad job. (I just can't seem to be sympathetic without going it-might-be-lots-worse all over.)"

( Simple Curiosity: Letters from George Gaylord Simpson to His Family, 1921-1970. University of California Press, 1987)

Punctuating Parenthetical Remarks

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • As a general rule, don't use a comma, colon, or semicolon directly in front of a parenthesis (though you may, as here, use one of these marks after a closing parenthesis): She found a hedgehog, and a snakeskin (but no snake), and a rock that looked just like a frog, and a toad that looked just like a rock.
    (Neil Gaiman, Coraline. HarperCollins, 2002)
  • When a complete sentence stands by itself inside parentheses, capitalize the first letter and place a period (or, if appropriate, a question mark or exclamation point) in front of the closing parenthesis: The magnitude of the Puritan devotion to higher education is on display in a letter Reverend Thomas Shepard, Jr., wrote to his son upon the lad's admission to Harvard. (The elder Shepard was a graduate of Harvard's class of 1653.)
    (Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates. Riverhead, 2008)
  • On those rare occasions when a sentence is interrupted by another complete sentence that's inside parentheses, don't capitalize the first letter of the parenthetical sentence and don't put a period in front of the closing parenthesis: He put the ball of thread (it was very thick stuff, more like cord than thread) into his mouth so that his cheek bulged out as if he were sucking a big bit of toffee.
    (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle. The Bodley Head, 1956)

In the end, punctuation is a matter of personal taste and so, like essayist Cynthia Ozick, you should feel free to reject most parenthetical proscriptions (even when they're delivered by a renowned literary critic):

"I was taking a course with Lionel Trilling and wrote a paper for him with an opening sentence that contained a parenthesis. He returned the paper with a wounding reprimand: "Never, never begin an essay with a parenthesis in the first sentence." Ever since then, I've made a point of starting out with a parenthesis in the first sentence."

("Cynthia Ozick, The Art of Fiction No. 95." The Paris Review, Spring 1987)