When to Use Parentheses (Hint: Sparingly) and How to Use Them Correctly

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Parentheses, like the em dash and ellipses, is a piece of punctuation that’s often overused in writing.

In some instances, parentheses can be useful, but more often than not, they’re unnecessary and may even act as a distraction, weakening your writing.

In this guide to parentheses, we explain what parentheses are, the difference between parentheses and brackets, when to use parentheses and when to avoid them, basic grammatical rules and finally, alternatives to parentheses.

What are parentheses?

When learning the basics of parentheses, I once had a teacher compare them to cupping your hands around your mouth, poised for a whisper. Your hands look like a pair of parentheses. 

See: ( )

Parentheses work similarly in grammar. They’re a pair of punctuation marks that enclose or set off information.

Parentheses are not to be confused with brackets, less technically called square parentheses, which are often used when altering quotes. See: [ ]

Brackets are also used when you have parentheses within parentheses, which is more common in technical writing. Here’s an example:

(The results [Figure 4] were inconclusive.)

When to use parentheses

The No. 1 rule you need to remember is to use parentheses sparingly.

AP Stylebook puts it best: “Parentheses are jarring to the reader.” Like a whisper, they can become too distracting.

Even so, there are some instances when parentheses will be necessary. Take a look.

1. Use parentheses to set off (typically nonessential) information

Webster’s New World College Dictionary Rules of Punctuation explains parentheses are used “to enclose material that is explanatory, supplementary, or illustrative.”

Even AP Stylebook, which isn’t particularly fond of parentheses, states, “There are occasions, however, when parentheses are the only effective means of inserting necessary background or reference information.”

But “Working With Words: A Handbook for Media Writers and Editors,” one of my favorite writing resources, emphasizes parentheses should be used to set off nonessential information. This is key.

One of my former editors (S/O to Heather van der Hoop) advised me to never put information in parentheses unless I felt comfortable deleting it. Her rule reinforced the fact that this information should be nonessential.

Take a look at the sentence above:

One of my former editors (S/O to Heather van der Hoop) advised me to never put information in parentheses unless I felt comfortable deleting it.

The reader doesn’t really need to know my former editor’s name — it’s just explanatory background information — so I set it off with parentheses. I would be comfortable with that information getting deleted, because it wouldn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Let’s take a look at one more example, but this one highlights the wrong way to use parentheses:

WRONG: The president agreed to sign the new bill into law (even though he’d been adamantly against it last week).

The fact that the president signed a bill that he denounced just one week prior is important, essential information for your story. In that case, you’d want to take this essential information out of parentheses and rewrite it with a comma or em dash.

RIGHT: The president agreed to sign the new bill into law, even though he’d been adamantly against it last week.

If you’re not sure if the information is essential or nonessential, use this rule from Merriam-Webster: “To test if a clause is indeed nonessential, leave it out and reread the sentence. If the main point of the sentence is not lost or distorted, then, yes, it is nonessential…”

One last thing: You can also use parentheses in quotes to add explanatory information the speaker may not have included:

“My opponent (Sam Smith) wouldn’t let up, and I became absolutely exhausted.”

However, if you find yourself using parentheses in quotes often, you’ll be better off paraphrasing.

Her opponent, Sam Smith, wouldn’t give up, and she became exhausted.

2. Use parentheses in specialized cases

This second rule highlighted in Webster’s Rules of Punctuation is straightforward: Use parentheses around numbers or figures in a list within your text.

Here’s an example:

The game was simple: (1) Draw a card, (2) guess higher or lower and (3) set it down.

Note that AP Stylebook tends to prefer bulleted lists if there are more than four items in the list.

When not to use parentheses

Before launching into our grammar overview on parentheses, let’s outline a few common instances when parentheses are often misused if you’re following the AP Stylebook.

Note: These rules will ultimately depend on the publication’s house style, so it’s always worth checking their site! 

Abbreviations for organizations: When writing an organization’s full name, you may be tempted to drop the abbreviation in parentheses after the full name, then use the abbreviation throughout the remainder of the article, like such: American Society of News Editors (ASNE).

However, AP Stylebook encourages writers to avoid “alphabet soup” and use the full name of the organization throughout the article, unless it’s a more common abbreviation or universally recognizable.

Phone numbers: You may be tempted to include the area code of a phone number in parentheses, but AP Stylebook wants writers to use dashes.

WRONG: (555) 555-5555

RIGHT: 555-555-5555

Time zones: Parentheses are also not necessary when specifying time zones within the U.S.

WRONG: 5 p.m. (EST)

RIGHT: 5 p.m. EST

You may use parentheses if you’re writing the time outside the continental U.S. The parentheses set off this additional, clarifying (though nonessential) information.

They broke into the art gallery at 9 a.m. (3 a.m. EDT) in Paris.

How to use parentheses

Parentheses are always in pairs, and there are two simple ways we can break down the grammatical rules.

1. Using parentheses around complete sentences

If you’re putting a complete sentence (or independent clause) in parentheses, punctuate as if the parentheses aren’t there. That means including the punctuation inside the parentheses and proceeding as normal.

They both knew he was in the wrong, but he refused to admit it. (At only 19, he still had some growing up to do.)

You could also use a question mark or exclamation mark if appropriate.

2. Using parentheses around incomplete sentences

If you’re putting an incomplete sentence (or dependent clause) in parentheses, punctuation goes outside the parentheses, and you don’t capitalize the first word.

The above sentence is an example of an incomplete sentence in parentheses, but here’s  another example (in case you need it).

If you wanted to add an exclamation mark or question mark within the parenthetical, you can. It’d look like this:

The above sentence is an example of an incomplete sentence in parentheses, but here’s  another example (in case you need it!).

Like any punctuation, there are also more intricate rules to consider. For instance, according to Webster’s Rules of Punctuation, when a complete declarative sentence within parentheses is part of another sentence, no period is required. Here’s an example of what that’d look like:

Her 94-year-old grandmother (recall she was born in 1927) was an iPad wiz.

You won’t end an incomplete sentence within parentheses with a comma, semicolon, colon or period.

WRONG: I somehow lost my suitcase (lime green, hot pink and orange,) but the woman who sat next to me on the plane helped me find it.

But you can add a comma, semicolon, colon or period, right after the closing parentheses.

RIGHT: I somehow lost my suitcase (lime green, hot pink and orange), but the woman who sat next to me on the plane helped me find it.

Alternatives to parentheses

Now that you’re armed with this information, we must remind you: Use parentheses sparingly!

“The temptation to use parentheses is a clue that a sentence is becoming contorted,” explains AP Stylebook. “Try to write it another way. If a sentence must contain incidental material, then commas or two dashes are frequently more effective.”

These two easy alternatives that usually work just fine:

Em dashesCommas

If you find you have a bad habit of using parentheses as a writing crutch, a grammar checker tool like ProWritingAid will suggest ways to strengthen your writing.

Pro tip: It also has a highly rated Google Doc add-on.

So, sure, sometimes parentheses are necessary — if they are, you’ll now know how to use them correctly — but more often than not, you can go without and make your writing even stronger and more clear with a simple tweak.

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Photo by Alexandra Fuller on Unsplash

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  • August 17, 2021
  • NEWS