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English Lesson 22: Correct Use of Parentheses

August 30th, 2008

parentheses-correct-symbol.jpgParentheses are punctuation marks that enclose supplementary material such as explanations, clarifications, or afterthoughts within the text of a sentence or paragraph. In standard English prose, an enclosed parenthetical expression provides the reader with information that is interesting to know but does not change the meaning of a sentence in which it is included. Depending on dialect and location, parentheses are sometimes referred to by other names such as brackets, rounded brackets, oval brackets, curved brackets, or parens.

The main rule to remember when using parentheses is that any other punctuation marks such as commas, periods, or semicolons that immediately follow the parenthetical material are placed outside of the right parenthesis as long as the material is part of another sentence. For example:

  1. According to Greek legend, Aeschylus was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head (mistaking it for a rock).
  2. After dining on bacon, eggs, and coffee (her usual breakfast), she left the house for work.
  3. Transcendentalism did not offer any clear set of beliefs (although it was an offshoot of Unitarianism, a New England religion); rather, it was suggesting a way to view the world.

The exception to this rule occurs when an entire sentence is enclosed by parentheses. In this case, the period is placed inside the end parenthesis:

  1. With proper SEO techniques, it is possible to gain enough traffic to make AdSense monetization worthwhile. (SEO is an abbreviation for search engine optimization, the process of optimizing one’s web page content for high search engine rankings.)

In addition to their use for marking off supplemental information within a sentence, there are many other uses for parentheses that are fairly common in English prose and in certain specialized fields. For example:

  1. In historical references, they are commonly used to contain the birth and death dates for people: Angela Merici (1470-1540) founded the Ursulines in 1535, an unconventional religious order in which women took vows but lived at home and taught in the community.
  2. Paretheses are used to indicate area codes in telephone numbers: According to their contact information, the phone number is (555) 555-5555.
  3. In mathematical expressions, parentheses are used to denote the order of operations. Specifically, they override the normal order of precedence such that any calculations within parentheses must be performed first: Normally 3 + 4 x 5 = 23; however (3 + 4) x 5 = 35.
  4. In subjects such as algebra and geometry, Cartesian coordinates are placed in parentheses according to the form (x,y): In order to find the point (3,5) on the graph, look three spaces to the right of center and five spaces toward the top.
  5. In some types of syntax, parentheses may be used in place of an X to denote multiplication: 4 (5) = 20 means the same thing as 4 x 5 = 20.
  6. In computer programming, parentheses may be used to contain parameters of functions, invoke functions, make array references, define lists, or enclose various other expressions. Their exact use in this context varies according to the syntax rules of each particular programming language.
  7. In accounting, parentheses are often used in place of a minus sign to indicate a monetary loss. In general, if you are trying to run a business and your bottom line has parentheses in it, you should take action as soon as possible to increase your revenue, decrease your expenses, or both.
  8. In online role playing games, parentheses are used to indicate dialogue which is “out of character” (in other words, talking about things in real life as opposed to something within the game world).
  9. For use in e-mails, message boards, instant messaging, and other online venues where informal “chat speak” is common, parenthesis marks may be combined with other ASCII characters to form expressions known as emoticons. For example, by typing a colon followed by a right parenthesis mark, we can make a smiley face like this: :)

Overall, parentheses and parenthetical expressions can be useful tools in a writer’s repertoire, but it is important not to overdo it. Using parentheses too often in the same piece of writing can make it look cluttered, thus increasing the risk of confusing the reader and detracting from your main message. If you find yourself trying to pack too many ideas into one sentence like I have on occasion, consider replacing some of your parenthesis marks with dashes or commas where appropriate. Otherwise, rephrase your text to break up longer passages into two or more sentences. In most cases, this will make things easier for the reader and allow you to communicate more effectively.

9 Responses to “English Lesson 22: Correct Use of Parentheses”

  1. comment number 1 by: ireland5

    Fantastic post - as always!

  2. comment number 2 by: Corey Freeman

    Great post, haha. Over at Diligent (and in general) I always use parenthesis for “asides” or definitions that don’t need prominence. I don’t know why, but I particularly enjoy using parenthesis. I guess I just like curves?

  3. comment number 3 by: Anthony at work-at-home-wealth.com

    Hey! Are you talking to me? :D

    This is a very good post. I always enjoy english language lessons. I hate making gramatical or syntactical mistakes but not being a native english speaker I make some now and then.

    I’ve missed the other 21 lessons but I’ll keep coming back to dig for them. If you drop by my blog and see any typos, misspellings etc. feel free to correct me (just don’t be mean, LOL). - See, I wrote the dot AFTER the right parentheses ;-)

  4. comment number 4 by: Chris Tucker

    I found using parenthisses for my area code ONLY in my phone number gave me better results in Google Local Search !!
    It SEEMS Google can tell by area code where you are ?
    Google Rocks !!

  5. comment number 5 by: Val

    Is this the proper use and if so, why?
    The members are managers and engineers (or delegate(s)) from each department.

  6. comment number 6 by: Craig

    I frequently review documents authored by colleagues from India( English speaking) commonly using this form. I keep correcting them because it looks odds, and is contrary to what I was taught. However, it seems very prevalent. Is this acceptable alternate form, or should I keep insisting? :)

  7. comment number 7 by: Marina

    Hello! I know this might be an odd question, but what font are the parentheses in the picture? I’d love to know!

  8. comment number 8 by: Karlonia


    It has been a long time, but if I remember correctly the font would be Times New Roman because I did the images for most of the punctuation mark posts by opening a standard Word document, typing the punctuation symbol, enlarging (but not changing) the font, taking a screenshot, and finally cropping the screenshot image in Irfanview and saving it as a separate file. Then this file was uploaded to the server and inserted into the post.

    Because the standard default font for the version of Word I was using is Times New Roman, I would guess that this is the font of the parentheses in the picture.

  9. comment number 9 by: Marina

    Thanks so much! I just liked how it looked like a zero, and apparently if you space two Times New Roman parentheses just right, it looks like a swankified zero! ^_^

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