How to Use Parenthesis

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Either or both of the upright curved lines, ( ), used to mark off explanatory or qualifying remarks in writing. Plural: parentheses. Adjective: parenthetical.

The insertion of some verbal unit that interrupts the normal syntactic flow of the sentence. Parenthetical remarks may also be set off by dashes

See Examples and Observations below.


From the Latin, "to insert beside"

Examples and Observations:

  • "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three."
  • "Write a three page essay on the subject 'What I Shall Do With My Life' (with a brief account of its chief events to date and a plan for the future).
    "Miss Cutbush loved parentheses."
  • "The English (it must be owned) are rather a foul-mouthed nation."
  • "'Black dog' is the mood of bottomless, suicidal despair suffered, most notoriously, by Winston Churchill (himself a kind of bulldog in nappies, a logo for Empire; growling and dribbling, wheezing smoke, swollen veins fired with brandy)."
  • The Rise of Parentheses in the 16th Century
    "Humanist scribes had introduced parentheses to isolate interpolated expressions which were grammatically independent of their immediate contexts, but in the 16th and 17th centuries they were employed (especially in England) much more freely than at any other time. Any expression which might be regarded as parenthetical was enclosed within the two marks."
  • Punctuating Parenthetical Remarks
    "If a quoted sentence that originally ended with a period is inserted somewhere in the middle of another sentence, the opening and closing quotation marks are retained, but the period is deleted . . .. If it originally ended with a question mark or an exclamation point, that punctuation is retained and followed by closing quotation marks and a closing parenthesis. If the insertion concludes a sentence, the appropriate end punctuation (e.g., period, question mark, or exclamation point) is placed after the concluding parenthesis."
  • Using Dashes to Set Off Parenthetical Remarks
    "If anyone thinks very intently on a single idea, with concentration and sustained attention, he will become conscious of a slight quiver or creeping feeling--it has been compared to the creeping of an ant--in the pineal gland."
  • Multiple Parenthetical Remarks
    "And yet, if you watched the news--especially the epileptic seizure that passes for news on cable television (and in certain precincts of the blogosphere)--you'd think that we were facing Armageddon, Sodom, Gomorrah, and the last days of Pompeii all at once."
    (Joe Klein, "The Year of Living Predictably." Time, Jan. 10, 2011)
  • The Danger of Overworking Parentheses
    "Parenthetical remarks of this sort--which may also be punctuated with dashes--can be a source of interest and variety as well as of necessary information. Moreover, such intrusions loosen the rhythm of a sentence, suggesting more interesting patterns of speech. The effectiveness of parenthetical remarks, however, depends on their scarcity. Using one in every other sentence costs you whatever advantage the device had, and overused parentheses can become an irritating mannerism."
  • C.S. Lewis's Parentheses
    "[I]n Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays."
  • Henry James's Parentheses
    "[Henry James] talked, as he wrote, in long involved sentences with a little murmur--mum-mum-mum--standing for parentheses, and with these rhetorical hooks he seemed to be poking about his mind, fumbling through the whole basket of his conversational vocabulary, to find the exact word, which he used in talking about most ordinary matters. He seemed to create with those parentheses."
  • Sarah Vowell's Affection for the Parenthesis
    "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)."
  • The Lighter Side of Parentheses
    "If you can't hear me, it's because I'm in parentheses."



Also Known As

Round brackets (chiefly British)


Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, 1955

Cid Ricketts Sumner, Sudden Glory, 1951

William Hazlitt, "On Criticism"

Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory. Granta Books, 1997

M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation. Univ. of California Press, 1993

David K Woodroof, Woodroof's Quotations, Commas and Other Things English. iUniverse, 2005

Annie Besant, Thought Power. Quest Books, 1952

Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing, Oxford Univ. Press, 1988

C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy, 1954

William Allen White, The Autobiography of William Allen White, 1946

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

Steven Wright