Parentheses and brackets are punctuation marks that get misused and abused a lot, especially in the blogging world and fan fiction. If you’re going to use them, make sure you know the rules and avoid a lot of embarrassment on your part and confusion on your readers’ behalf.
First of all, please note most of the rules for parentheses apply to informal writing. They aren’t something you want to use in formal writing except for when giving annotations. For those rules, check the style guide for whichever style you are using to write your paper. The rules for brackets will apply for both formal and informal writing, but they’re almost never needed for informal writing because they apply to quoted material. I mean, how often do you use quotes in informal writing, outside of fiction?
Let’s start with the most common marks, parentheses.
You want to use parentheses when you include sentences or phrases to clarify something or to include an aside.
I was working for Cumulus (WZYP/WHRP) when a traffic accident sent a school bus over the Parkway railing in Huntsville.
My goals are first, no sweets until New Year's Day. (I'll likely push it back once January 1 gets here, but I know if I say, no sweets for a year, I'll freak and eat my way into a sugar coma.)
See how in the first example, it’s giving the call letters of the specific stations under the broadcasting company’s umbrella within a specific market? This is additional information meant to clarify.
Look at the second example. The sentence outside the parentheses is more formal, where the one inside the parentheses is more informal, as if I’m speaking directly to the reader. It’s kind of like breaking the fourth wall in written form.
Why use parentheses when commas can serve the same function?
Commas or semi-colons can be used in much the same way as parentheses, depending on the placement and purpose of the phrases within. Whether you choose to use commas or parentheses will depend on whether your writing is formal or informal as well as how much importance you place on the sentence or phrase. Commas and semi-colons are more formal. Parentheses are less formal and can be used to indicate the information included doesn’t have a lot of importance in your mind but was included on a whim or as an afterthought.
Okay, so how do I handle punctuation around these things?
If you’re using parentheses inside a sentence, keep the end punctuation outside the parentheses. I mean, it’s part of the sentence, so putting the end punctuation outside of the parentheses is just a way of showing the parenthetical phrase inside the parentheses is part of the sentence as a whole.
I was working for Cumulus Broadcasting (WZYP/WHRP).
If you have an entire sentence or a few sentences inside parentheses, put the end punctuation inside the parentheses. Thinking about the statements like fourth wall breaks, the opening parenthesis is you breaking through the wall. The end punctuation is when you stop talking, and the end parenthesis is you spackling over the hole you broke through.
It’s my goal to avoid sweets until January 1st. (Well, it’s really longer, but I’m trying not to freak out and bing on chocolate.)
What if I need two bits of end punctuation?
I’m guessing you mean you’re inserting an exclamation or question within the main sentence? Honestly, I’d suggest you find a way to rephrase, but if you must, here’s what you do. Use the proper end punctuation to close the parenthetical phrase inside the parentheses and then put the end punctuation of the parent sentence outside of them to close it.
Cleaning is the most boring thing ever (right?).
Be careful of subject/verb agreement and comma usage outside parentheses.
For all intents and purposes, the information inside the parentheses isn’t part of the sentence. Parenthetical phrases won’t change whether the noun is singular or plural, and you aren’t going to place it inside an introductory phrase. If you decide to add a parenthetical phrase at the end of an introductory one, put the comma after the introductory phrase the same as usual.
Or pretend the parenthetical phrase isn’t there at all, in other words.
Now let’s move on to brackets.
Brackets aren’t just fancy parentheses. They are their own punctuation mark meant to be use inside direct quotes only to indicate the author added information to the quote.
People almost never speak with as much grammatical accuracy as they might write. We mix up our words, leave information out, or travel to Kansas to visit our neighbor. Authors use brackets to insert explanations, indicate errors in the original quote, or give a nod to having placed a quotation differently than the one who said it.
“Cody [her brother] and I spent most weekends with our mother’s parents while our parents worked.”
“[S]ome are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” is an insightful statement made by William Shakespeare.
In the first example, the person quoted didn’t say the phrase inside the brackets. She assumed the person she was speaking too would know whom she referenced. The author cannot make this assumption, so they added the clarifying phrase inside brackets to indicate it was their addition.
Take a look at the second example. This is indeed a quote from Shakespeare, but it starts midsentence, meaning the first “some” wasn’t originally capitalized. Here the brackets acknowledge the fact the author changed the capitalization.
Using brackets to acknowledge a grammatical error within the quote is a bit different. Instead of correcting the error, you must insert the word sic in italics and enclose it in standard brackets. That is unless the quote is written in italics, in which case you would put the brackets in italics and sic in standard font. (Basically, make the brackets match the sentence around it and place the word “sic” in the opposite format so it stands out.)
“I only know who I is [sic].”
“Completing this project will make the city more better [sic],” the city councilman wrote.
Sic is a Latin word that means “thus,” and it’s come to mean something along the lines of, “I know this isn't grammatically correct, but it’s how they said it.”
There you have the basics of using parentheses and brackets in your writing. If you have questions or something you’d like to add, please comment down below. I try to answer all comments and questions within twenty-four hours.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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