Punctuation Tips: Parenthesis
  • 8-minute read
  • 3rd March 2023

Punctuation Tips: Parenthesis

Whether you’re writing an essay, email, or cover letter, you’ll likely use parentheses. Maybe you already know what a parenthesis is but aren’t sure when to use it. Did you know that there are different ways to use parentheses in writing? If you’re curious to know more about parentheses, including when to use them, then read on!

Here, we provide a comprehensive guide to using parentheses. By the end of this post, you’ll be able to define a parenthesis and know why and when to use it.

What Is a Parenthesis?

A parenthesis is a word, phrase, or clause inserted into a sentence as an explanation or afterthought. The information in parentheses is unnecessary but still related to the text. Here are a couple of examples with the parenthesis highlighted in green:

You—to put it mildly—are doing it wrong.

Yes, but I, as they say, am at least doing it.

A parenthesis is usually offset with parenthetical punctuation marks, such as round brackets, commas, or dashes. A parenthesis often interrupts the flow of a text, earning it the nickname “The Interrupter”. 

The Purpose of Using Parentheses in Writing

We use parentheses to offset additional information in a sentence. For example, the parenthetical information can clarify the preceding writing or it might be a digression. This information can fit into one sentence, thus eliminating the need to write two sentences.

Examples of a Parenthesis


A parenthesis with brackets is the most common example, especially round ones. Let’s consider this example:

Real Madrid (last year’s UEFA Champions League winners) hopes to win another title this year.

The parenthesis is clearly seen when parentheses (round brackets) are used to offset it. Round brackets are also used to introduce unfamiliar abbreviations when first used in writing. For example:

I am a member of Friends of the Observatory (FOTO), an amateur astronomy group at the Cincinnati Observatory Center.

Square brackets or box brackets [ ] are used to alter words in a direct quotation in academic writing. These words clarify meaning, provide a brief explanation, or blend a writer’s words into the quote, making the quote more understandable for the reader. Consider this example:

“It [cyberbullying] can lead to long-term psychological consequences for the victim” (Taggert, p.248).

Cyberbullying clarifies the meaning of the pronoun ‘it’ and is the word of the student writer rather than the original author (Taggert). In addition, you should know that square or box brackets must be used when altering words in a direct quotation. In other words, using round brackets would be incorrect.

You would also use square brackets when using sic in quotes. Sic is based on the Latin phrase sic erat scriptum (thus it was written), and is used to show that a quote has been reproduced exactly as it appears in the source text, complete with any errors:

Johnson (2002) says, “I am very good at speling [sic].”

Curly brackets or braces { } are rarely used in formal writing, but they serve a purpose. In this case, they denote a list within a list. Here’s an example:

I need to go to the store today for laundry detergent, chicken, and dairy products {milk, yogurt, cheese}.

The words in the braces illustrate a list within a list, in this case, the list of dairy products.


Commas are also commonly used for parentheses. They keep the focus on the surrounding text. For example:

James, on the other hand, has a more positive outlook.

Skid Row, which is in downtown Los Angeles, is notorious for its sheer presence of homelessness.

Unfortunately, commas aren’t popular with readers for parenthetical emphasis. They have other roles, such as separating list items and offsetting adverbial phrases. Because of this, readers often become confused about where the parenthesis starts and ends. Therefore, writers should carefully consider using commas to offset parentheses. For instance, if a parenthesis contains commas, additional commas to offset it would potentially confuse the reader. Let’s look at an example:

Kieron Olsen, like his brother, George, last year, won this year’s regional tennis championship.

Wow! Talk about a comma overload! It’s hard to know where the parenthetical offset is, and this would read better with round brackets. Let’s try this:

Kieron Olsen (like his brother, George, last year) won this year’s regional tennis championship.

We can agree that the parenthetical offset is easier to see.


Parenthetical offset using dashes increases the focus on the parenthesis. We tend to find dashes in fiction writing; however, they can also be used in quotations. You would use either an en or em dash to offset a parenthesis. An en dash (–) uses a punctuation mark longer than a hyphen (-). An em dash (—) is a slightly longer punctuation mark than an en dash. Let’s look at examples of en and em dashes in action:

One of the twins – he couldn’t tell them apart – ran to greet him.

Ron didn’t eat fruit—not even apples—and wasn’t about to start.

With the en dash, you add a space on either side of each dash. However, em dashes are left unspaced. So, if there are two types of dashes, which one should you use? This will depend on your audience. Dashes are used differently in U.S. English than in U.K. English. If your audience is using U.S. English, you will use the unspaced em dash; for U.K. English, it will be the spaced en dash.

You should know that using the hyphen (-) instead of dashes would be incorrect for parenthetical offset. In fact, many writers erroneously use hyphens to offset a parenthesis. They often aren’t aware of the dash rule or don’t know how to type an en or em dash.


When Should You Use a Parenthesis?

A parenthesis is good for adding extra information to a sentence. A text without a single parenthesis would be dull to read. You should also use one to interrupt a sentence with an afterthought or digression. Additionally, parentheses are needed to separate words or phrases for clarity. Moreover, you need parentheses when introducing unfamiliar abbreviations in academic writing.

Rules for Parentheses

Of course, there are rules for using parentheses, which you should be aware of.

Placement Within a Sentence

Parentheses can enclose a single word, a sentence fragment, a complete sentence, or multiple complete sentences.

·   Single word – Pauline is coming to my party (yay!), and she’s bringing a cake.

Find this useful?

Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.

·   Fragment – Pauline is coming to my party (or so she says), and she’s bringing a cake.

·   Full sentence – Pauline is coming to my party, and she’s bringing a cake. (Does she remember how to get to my place, though?)

·   Multiple sentences – Pauline is coming to my party, and she’s bringing a cake. (Does she remember how to get to my place, though? She forgot the last time.)

Punctuation Usage With Parentheses

Parentheses tend to end up with some extra punctuation, especially when they’re at the end of a sentence.

Periods, commas, exclamation points, and question marks that belong to the outside sentence always go outside the parenthesis. For example:

I can’t believe she’s telling the truth (she never does)!

Formatting Parentheses in Academic Writing

Parenthetical information should not be necessary to the rest of the text. If you remove the text in parentheses, the sentence should still be complete and correct. Consider these examples:

I need to be (back at the hotel before 6 p.m.).
I need to be back at the hotel (before 6 p.m.).

If we remove the text in parentheses, the sentence isn’t clear. What do they need to be? However, with “before 6 p.m.” in parentheses, we know this individual needs to be back at their hotel before 6 p.m.

The subject-verb agreement should also ignore anything in parentheses. For example:

The teacher (and all the students) was late for the concert.

You will need to use the correct bracket style in academic writing. Round brackets, ( ), add extra information in a text, while square brackets, [ ], add extra information that wasn’t in the original quote. Additionally, round brackets are used when introducing abbreviations. Finally, you use square brackets when using sic in quotes.


So that’s it for parentheses. Here’s a summary of key points:

●  Parentheses are important for any text; without them, the text would be dull to read.

●  Brackets, commas, and dashes exemplify parentheses; however, commas can sometimes be confusing when used as parentheses.

●  Parentheses can enclose a single word, a sentence fragment, a complete sentence, or multiple complete sentences.

●  You will need to format parentheses correctly for academic writing.

●  Be careful with punctuation use with parentheses.

●  Brackets play a crucial role in academic writing (introducing abbreviations).

Parentheses make any text more interesting to read. The additional information, clarification, or afterthought provided by a parenthesis in a sentence is usually essential to keep readers informed, on track, or engaged with the author’s thinking. Therefore, writers should be comfortable using parentheses. You will use parentheses more in some contexts and less in others. No matter the context, if your parenthesis is short, consider not using any parenthetical punctuation.

Are you currently working on a cover letter, essay, or other writing and unsure of correctly using parentheses? How about letting the proofreading experts at Proofed review your writing? We can check for grammar and punctuation errors and ensure perfect spelling. We will also ensure the correct use of parentheses. Consider submitting a 500-word document for free today!


1.   What is the definition of parenthesis?

A parenthesis is a word, phrase, or clause inserted into a sentence as an explanation or afterthought. The information in parentheses is unnecessary but still related to the text.

2.   What are the uses of parenthesis in writing?

Parenthesis offsets additional information in a sentence instead of writing it in a separate sentence. For example, the parenthetical information clarifies or explains or might offer a digression.

3.   When should parenthesis be used instead of commas or dashes?

Parentheses are most useful to include short asides or background information such as dates, percentages, and financial information. Parentheses should be used for adding information to quotes or introducing unfamiliar abbreviations in academic writing. For more information on parentheses, commas, and dashes, check out this link.

Comments (0)

Got content that needs a quick turnaround?

Let us polish your work.

Explore our editorial business services.

More Writing Tips?
Trusted by thousands of leading
institutions and businesses

Make sure your writing is the best it can be with our expert English proofreading and editing.