labyrinth that looks like many parentheses

How to Use (Not Abuse) Parentheses

By Erika Suffern

Like some other punctuation marks, parentheses are used in prose to set apart some text in a sentence, such as an explanation, observation, aside, or digression. Text set off by parentheses is not necessarily grammatically connected to the rest of the sentence.

Nabokov is the author of novels (the best known are Lolita and Pale Fire), short stories, drama, poetry, autobiography, and literary criticism.

Puerto Rico’s cuisine is called cocina criolla (“creole cooking”) and was shaped by influences from native Taíno Indians, Spanish colonists, and African slaves.

I dozed on and off, vaguely aware that my face was becoming flushed in the afternoon sun (in those days I never bothered with a sun hat).

Parentheses also set aside a whole sentence or several sentences in a text.

In eighteenth-century bourgeois life, the table and its manners were opportunities for social distinction. (For instance, the middle class heaped scorn on the lower orders for using the knife, rather than the fork, as a spear.)

Choosing Other Punctuation Marks

When I’m writing or editing and want to decide whether to use parentheses, I may ask myself how important an explanation or aside is to the sentence. If it is key to the main point of the sentence, I typically opt for a different punctuation mark. Consider the parentheses in the following:

In Pale Fire the poem by the fictional John Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita arriving on the American East Coast in 1958, and the narrator, Charles Kinbote (in the commentary later in Pale Fire) questions the choice of the name for a hurricane.

The parentheses can be replaced with a pair of commas, because the phrase “in the commentary later in Pale Fire” provides contextual information relevant to the sentence as a whole:

In Pale Fire the poem by the fictional John Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita arriving on the American East Coast in 1958, and the narrator, Charles Kinbote, in the commentary later in Pale Fire, questions the choice of the name for a hurricane.

For longer asides, commas may not be strong enough. And commas may not work when the sentence itself is long and contains several other commas or when the phrase or clause you need to set apart contains internal commas.

Vienna’s intellectuals (such as Sigmund Freud and Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, who studied sexual behavior) pioneered the study of sexuality, and Vienna was proud of its cabarets and prostitutes, among other contradictions that gave the city an atmosphere of secrecy and amorality.

Like parentheses, dashes are strong punctuation marks, but they are sometimes more effective than parentheses at integrating an explanation or an aside with the surrounding prose.

Vienna’s intellectuals—such as Sigmund Freud and Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, who studied sexual behavior—pioneered the study of sexuality, and Vienna was proud of its cabarets and prostitutes, among other contradictions that gave the city an atmosphere of secrecy and amorality.

You can even use a colon in place of parentheses to provide an elaboration.

Pies can be made with nearly any summer fruit (peaches, cherries, plums, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries all make excellent pies).

Pies can be made with nearly any summer fruit: peaches, cherries, plums, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries all make excellent pies.

Too Many Parentheses?

Sometimes writers overuse parentheses without realizing it. Overuse of parentheses may be a sign of hedging or uncertainty: the writer isn’t confident that the material belongs in the text so tucks it away in parentheses. 

After a traumatic event, a person may have an elevated baseline of arousal (their bodies always on the lookout for danger). Even normally safe environments can feel dangerous (because the person cannot be assured that some reminder of the trauma will not be encountered).

As strong punctuation marks, parentheses tend to slow down the experience of reading prose. They also momentarily take the reader outside the main point and grammatical coherence of the sentence. For these reasons, a text that relies heavily on parentheses can feel like a path filled with distractions that shift the reader off course. Consider the following paragraph:

Nabokov reflects his idea that there must be something beyond time (in both the texture of Speak, Memory’s individual sentences and the structure of the autobiography as a whole). Midway between the individual sentence and the work as a whole stands the chapter. At this level too he finds ways to resist the linearity of time (time as mere succession, time as implacable cause and effect). In exploring chapter 2 of the autobiography (originally titled “Portrait of My Mother”), one can turn away from the role of men in his family (fathers and sons as, respectively, standard and stand-in) to the role of women (his mother as source and stimulus, prefiguring the role his wife will one day play as a kind of second self) and observe how Nabokov shapes a single chapter to acknowledge and yet transcend time.

To revise, evaluate each set of parentheses and determine, first, whether the text they enclose is truly an aside, and second, whether another punctuation mark would be more fitting. Let’s look sentence by sentence at the revision that follows.

Nabokov reflects his idea that there must be something beyond time in both the texture of Speak, Memory’s individual sentences and the structure of the autobiography as a whole. The parentheses in the original have simply been removed, and no punctuation is needed to replace them: the phrase that begins “in both the texture” is an important elaboration of the first idea in the sentence.

At this level too he finds ways to resist the linearity of time, time as mere succession, time as implacable cause and effect. Related points are better presented as a series separated by commas.

In exploring chapter 2 of the autobiography, originally titled “Portrait of My Mother,” one can turn away from the role of men in his family—fathers and sons as, respectively, standard and stand-in—to the role of women, specifically his mother as source and stimulus (prefiguring the role his wife will one day play as a kind of second self), and observe how Nabokov shapes a single chapter to acknowledge and yet transcend time. This long sentence was encumbered by multiple sets of parentheses. The parentheses are most appropriate around the phrase beginning with “prefiguring” because the phrase makes a point tangential to the main idea of the sentence. The parentheses around the short phrase “originally titled . . .” can be replaced with a pair of commas, and the parentheses around the longer phrase “fathers and sons . . .” can be replaced with a pair of dashes.

Putting it all together, we get a paragraph whose punctuation clarifies what information is more and less important to the main point. With fewer parentheses than the cluttered original had, it is also more readable.

Nabokov reflects his idea that there must be something beyond time in both the texture of Speak, Memory’s individual sentences and the structure of the autobiography as a whole. Midway between the individual sentence and the work as a whole stands the chapter. At this level too he finds ways to resist the linearity of time, time as mere succession, time as implacable cause and effect. In exploring chapter 2 of the autobiography, originally titled “Portrait of My Mother,” one can turn away from the role of men in his family—fathers and sons as, respectively, standard and stand-in—to the role of women, specifically his mother as source and stimulus (prefiguring the role his wife will one day play as a kind of second self), and observe how Nabokov shapes a single chapter to acknowledge and yet transcend time.

If you tend to rely on parentheses to set off clauses or phrases, replacing some of them with other kinds of punctuation will lend variety to your prose. But don’t overcompensate by replacing all your parentheses with the same punctuation mark; overuse of dashes, for example, is hardly an improvement on overuse of parentheses.

Published 30 June 2020

1 comment on “How to Use (Not Abuse) Parentheses”

  1. Sounds like good advice. However, it would be nice if you avoided that four-letter word
    punctuation “mxxk.” The use of it leaves out some punctuation. It would be better to use just “punctuation” or “punctuation feature.”

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