Parentheses are one of those tools in the toolbox which we often see but might not always fully appreciate. In this article, we’re going to change that. Let’s inspect the best ways to use parentheses, what makes them so powerful in our writing, and how they might impact our work.

What Are the Basics of Parentheses?

For starters, parentheses are those curved lines or curved brackets that surround part or all of a sentence. They express a minor (some might say parenthetical) thought on a subject. Unlike a regular statement, one marked by parentheses is usually an additional thought, aside, or statement that isn’t essential to the topic at hand.

For example, consider the following:

  • When I saw the pink-frosted donut, my mouth began to water (sort of like Homer Simpson).

The Homer Simpson reference isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence, but it’s a humorous aside to the reader. Therefore, I put it in parentheses. They’re a great way to insert quick jokes in your writing.

You can also use parentheses to list descriptive information, such as in this example:

  • I ordered myself some coffee (large with two creams and two sugars) to go with my donut.

Finally, here’s an example of how parentheses are used to add additional context to a statement:

  • When I arrived in New York City, I had the overwhelming urge to shout, “Go Yankees!” (“Go Mets!” never crossed my mind.)

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Can You Put a Full Sentence in Parentheses?

Absolutely! As in the previous example, you’ll find many occasions to do so. Just remember that if an entire sentence ends up in parentheses, all punctuation should stay inside the closing bracket.

  • The library is the perfect place for cheapskate readers like me. ($40 for a hardcover? No thanks!)

However, if a parenthetical thought appears within another sentence, punctuation should go outside the parentheses.

  • The Who first released one of their most famous songs, “The Kids Are Alright,” in 1965 (they subsequently re-released it numerous times on “Best Of” albums).

This is the English language, so we should expect some complicating factors. We know that punctuation goes outside parentheses if the parenthetical thought is not an independent sentence. However, if a thought within parentheses requires its own punctuation, that punctuation should remain inside the parentheses. Here’s an example:

  • The cheapest plane ticket was over $2,000 (what a bargain!), so I was forced to dip into my savings.

I felt an exclamation point was necessary to underscore my sarcasm, so I included it within the parentheses. The sentence still requires a period at the end. Notice that I placed the comma outside the parentheses, since it doesn’t belong to the parenthetical thought.

I find it helps to imagine parentheses as a capsule. Everything belonging to the thought inside the parentheses stays within; everything belonging to the thought outside the parentheses stays out.

What’s the Difference Between Square Brackets and Parentheses?

Though they look similar, square brackets and parentheses are not interchangeable. You now know the purposes of the latter, which will always be used with curved brackets. Square brackets, on the other hand, are only used to express additional information inside a quotation.

  • “Today’s game was a mess. We [the home team] didn’t execute on either end of the floor.”

Whoever said this (presumably a basketball coach) didn’t actually say the part in brackets. That was inserted by the writer to add context for readers. This is really the only reason writers need to use square brackets. Otherwise, use parentheses.

Summing It Up

Parentheses are used to express minor thoughts, asides, or humorous additions. They can be sentence fragments or complete sentences. They’re not to be confused with square brackets.

Hope that helps. Now get out there and write (and enjoy those parentheses)!

Common Questions about Parentheses

The use of parentheses

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