CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

Parenthesis and parentheses

TLDR: A parenthesis is a bracket, so a pair of brackets makes parentheses. An aside is also referred to as a parenthesis.

Disregarding coding, science and mathematics, a parenthesis is a single bracket ( or ), the pair is referred to as parentheses. Contained within these brackets is a word or phrase that serves as an aside, providing additional information that does not affect the completeness of the sentence. However, when referring to the aside within the parentheses, the word parenthesis is also used. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the word bracket when referring to a single symbol and parenthesis when referring to the aside contained within the brackets.

I personally don’t use brackets in my novel writing, as I find commas and dashes more than adequate and also more aesthetically pleasing. However, it must be said that they are very useful elsewhere when used correctly. So how should we use them?

The two Johns were fighting, as per usual. John Marshall (the taller one with the curly hair) appeared to be winning.

‘When I get back, I want to see every single one of you with your boots on and (fingers crossed!) doing your warm-up.’

I had hoped to see my father at the play but he never showed up (for reasons I will detail later on).

When the Smiths finally arrived (after a bit of trouble getting baby Simon into the car), the hosts fired up the barbecue.

‘When we get back from this mission (if we get back), we should go out for a drink.’

Nat got the first goal and Eddie got the second one. (Or was it the other way round?)

As you can see, each sentence stands up without the addition of the parenthesis. In these four examples, the parenthesis provides additional information that is not necessarily needed, despite perhaps being desired.

In the second example, note that the exclamation mark occurs within the pair of parentheses. Any punctuation that resides within a pair of brackets stays within the brackets and does not affect the rest of the sentence. As you can see, the sentence continues merrily on its way and ends with the regular full stop.

In the third example, the parentheses resides at the end of the sentence. Yet, take note that the full stop does not belong inside the brackets but outside. This is so the sentence as a whole can be neatly concluded. If the full stop resided inside the bracket, the sentence would be left unfinished.

The fourth example shows a parenthesis relating to the Smiths, hence why the comma comes after the last bracket. Similarly, in the fifth example, the aside (if we get back) relates to the first part of the sentence, not the second, so it resides before the comma.

As I said earlier, I prefer to use either dashes or commas in my novel writing. Sometimes, an aside simply does not work as well when taken outside of a pair of brackets and the sentence will have to be reworded. Had I decided to use any of these examples in narrative prose, they may have looked something like this:

The two Johns were fighting, as per usual. John Marshall—the taller one with the curly hair—appeared to be winning.

‘When I get back, I want to see every single one of you with your boots on and, fingers crossed, doing your warm-up.’

I had hoped to see my father at the play but he never showed up, for reasons I will detail later on.

After a bit of trouble getting baby Simon into the car, the Smiths finally arrived and the hosts fired up the barbecue.

‘When we get back from this mission—if we get back—we should go out for a drink.’

As you can see, parentheses can be very useful in conveying additional information but can be a bit tricky, depending on where they reside in a sentence. If you are having trouble working out where to put your parentheses, imagine them as a sticky note. Stick your additional information on the thing in question. For example:

John Marshall (the taller one with the curly hair) appeared to be winning.

The parenthesis (the taller one with the curly hair) is stuck to the subject—John Marshall.

Do not double up your punctuation. In my sixth example above, the parenthesis occurs within its own sentence. Had I merged the two, I could have ended up with:

Nat got the first goal and Eddie got the second one (or was it the other way round?).

It looks messy and dated to have so much punctuation crushed into so small a space. It is simpler to break the two elements into separate sentences or else ditch the brackets altogether and create a sentence tag.

So, in conclusion, while brackets are very useful in creating and separating asides, make sure you put them where they should go, with the punctuation they require and only when they’re needed!

Happy writing!

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