What’s the most boring punctuation mark?
I used to think that award should go to parentheses. They seem to smell like math exams in sweaty classrooms. Ugh.
But I’ve learned that parentheses can be FUN.
Parentheses can be as intimate as that whispered conversation about your teenage crush.
And they work for grown ups, too.
Whether you’re writing a business article or a memoir, an e-newsletter or a LinkedIn update, parentheses can make your writing more conversational and pull your readers closer.
Shall I show you?
Parentheses are for important asides
Parentheses are best used for additional, yet essential information.
For instance, in her novel Road Ends, Mary Lawson describes Meghan buying ingredients for Coq au Vin—a dish she’s never made before:
She left work early and bought the ingredients on the way home: a chicken, streaky bacon, butter, olive oil (she’d never heard of it), garlic (ditto), button onions (ditto), button mushrooms (ditto), herbs (mostly ditto), a quarter bottle of brandy (you only needed two tablespoons but you couldn’t buy two tablespoons) and a bottle of burgundy (you only needed half a bottle but they’d drink the rest).
At first glance, the text between parentheses above is additional. You can easily remove it and the sentence remains grammatically correct:
She left work early and bought the ingredients on the way home: a chicken, streaky bacon, butter, olive oil, garlic, button onions, button mushrooms, herbs, a quarter bottle of brandy and a bottle of burgundy.
However, without the commentary between the parentheses, the sentence has become a boring list of ingredients.
So, the additional information between parentheses provides essential insight and adds liveliness to the writing.
Parentheses are always used in pairs (duh), and can embrace a word, a fragment, a sentence, or even multiple sentences. For instance, when Lawson describes Edward’s discussion with Betty, she places Edward’s commentary—a whole sentence—between parentheses:
Betty says she has knocked on [the Reverend’s] door several times and various other members of the congregation have done so as well, bearing food. (Women seem to think the answer to everything is food.)
The first sentence in the quote above is just a simple statement of fact. The second sentence—the one between parentheses—reveals Edward’s thoughts. And how much insight it gives!
Use parentheses in moderation
Especially when used for fragments in a sentence, parentheses can make it harder for readers to follow the flow.
That’s why the use of parentheses is often frowned upon. As Umberto Eco wrote:
(Always) remember that parentheses (even when they seem indispensable) interrupt the flow.
Read the above quote aloud, and you may notice the disruption: You’ll find yourself pausing at the second set of parentheses: (Always) remember that parentheses—PAUSE—(even when they seem indispensable)—PAUSE—interrupt the flow.
And you probably had to briefly remind yourself how the words before and after the parentheses connect: Remember that parentheses interrupt the flow.
Yet, writing is not always straightforward. As a writer, you can chose to interrupt the flow.
For instance, in a long sentence from his excellent memoir The Boy with the Topknot, Sathnam Sanghera chooses to use 4 pairs of parentheses.
Sanghera tells us how he tries to keep his relationship with a white girl secret but his family has found out and one of his aunt calls him. Sanghera describes his anger:
Suddenly, I was furious about Mum’s reaction (the hysterical mother is the ultimate Indian cliché), my extended family’s involvement (who were these people calling me, judging me? I barely knew them), the distant relative who had supposedly passed on the information (gleefully, no doubt), the way in which the media always portrays men as the beneficiaries of arranged marriages (some of us were just as trapped as women), and the racism of the word ‘gori’, a word spat out as if it were interchangeable with ‘whore’, a word being used to describe someone who had only been kind to me, who had done more for me than many members of my extended family had ever done.
The parentheses make it a little more difficult to read the sentence. What if you’d keep the commentary but without the parentheses? It’s possible to rephrase, for instance like this:
Suddenly, I was furious about Mum’s reaction—the hysterical mother is the ultimate Indian cliché. I was furious with my extended family’s involvement: Who were these people calling me, judging me? I barely knew them. I was also furious with the distant relative who had supposedly passed on the information. I imagine they did so gleefully. I was also furious with the way in which the media always portrays men as the beneficiaries of arranged marriages because some of us were just as trapped as women. And lastly, I was furious with the racism of the word ‘gori’, a word spat out as if it were interchangeable with ‘whore’, a word being used to describe someone who had only been kind to me, who had done more for me than many members of my extended family had ever done.
The tone of the writing changes, right? The description of the writer’s anger feels a tad labored, and you lose the intimacy of the parentheses.
Writing is always a balance. You can choose to use parentheses so you can have a more intimate conversation with your readers—even if that interrupts the flow.
As a writer, you’re the boss
You decide whether your commentary between parentheses is important or not.
In his memoir Ten Things I Hate About Me, Joe Tracini uses parentheses to make his writing more conversational:
Einstein once said (this is the only quote I know, by the way, so enjoy), ‘The definition of insanity is repeating the same event over and over again and expecting a different result.’
How relevant is it to know that Tracini knows only one quote from Einstein? That’s up to Tracini to decide. As the author, he decides what insights he wants to share and how he wants to communicate with his readers. The comment between parentheses is essential to his voice.
It’s similar here:
It’s like how babies have no object permanence (I didn’t know what that meant originally either, I googled it). When you play peekaboo with them, you genuinely disappear from the universe and they’re delighted when you return.
When Tracini mentions the phrase object permanence, it’s like he hears his reader think, What’s that? So, he adds his comment to tell them not to worry. He didn’t know what object permanence meant either.
How to decide whether to use parentheses
So, how do you decide whether or not to use parentheses?
1. Only add essential information.
Check: Cross out the text between parentheses. Can you do without?
Remember: You decide what’s essential.
2. Use parentheses for a good reason.
Check: Try rewriting your sentence without parentheses. Does that change the tone of your writing?
As Umberto Eco suggested, parentheses get a bad rap.
Because they interrupt the flow.
But as a writer, it’s your choice.
You can interrupt the flow to add a meaningful comment or to make the conversation with your reader more intimate.
You’re the boss.
You can break the rules.