A parenthesis is a word, phrase, or clause that interrupts the text to offer an explanation, digression, or afterthought. Used appropriately, a parenthetical comment (another way to say parenthesis) adds a little needed variety to writing. We offset these types of comments with punctuation because they aren’t essential to the meaning or grammar of the sentence. In this blog post, we’ll focus on how to use parentheses for parenthetical comments in your writing. (Say that five times, as fast as you can!)
Depending on your goals, you might use either round brackets (called parentheses), commas, or em dashes. For example, any of the following would be correct:
A parenthesis is an interrupter (though not necessarily a bad one).
A parenthesis is an interrupter, though not necessarily a bad one.
A parenthesis is an interrupter – though not necessarily a bad one.
While each of these options has the exact same meaning, the choice of punctuation makes a subtle visual difference. Parentheses are probably the most disruptive, so it’s best to use them sparingly. Overusing parentheses can make formal text look a bit disorganized.
Types of parentheses
“Parenthesis” has two meanings: 1) an interrupting comment in writing and 2) one half of the pair of punctuation marks known as parentheses. Parentheses (the punctuation marks) always come in twos, with an opening parenthesis and a closing parenthesis.
We use round parentheses to indicate an interruption or digression in a sentence. For example:
Big Jack Glutton (the reigning hot dog-eating champion) will attend the restaurant’s grand opening.
On the other hand, square brackets indicate that the text within is an addition or clarification by the writer or editor. Brackets are used here to clarify an aspect of an abridged text:
Original: It took three years to settle into my life as an expat. By my third year, I had work I enjoyed, a comfortable home, and a supportive community of friends and neighbors. By far, it was the best.
Abridged: By far, [my third year as an expat] was the best.
Ways to Use Parentheses
We’ve talked about how parentheses are used to set off nonessential information, such as additional examples, explanations, or asides. We’ve also explained that parentheses sometimes indicate that the text within is a translation, clarification, or comment. But there are a couple of other ways to use parentheses.
Firstly, they are used to enclose citations and references, such as page numbers, in research papers, essays, and other academic writing. This example is of a parenthetical citation in APA referencing style:
Falsely balanced news coverage can distort the public’s perception of expert consensus of an issue (Koehler, 2016).
Secondly, parentheses can also be used along with the word “sic” to acknowledge a typographical error or that a word is uncertain in a text, such as in this example where “words” is spelled incorrectly:
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According to Baranski (2022), “We must spell wurds [sic] correctly.”
Tips for Using Parentheses
Use parentheses sparingly and only when necessary. Overuse of parentheses can make a sentence difficult to read and understand.
When using parentheses, make sure that the sentence is clear and coherent without the parenthetical information.
Be consistent in your use of parentheses and use the same type of parentheses throughout your writing.
Be aware of the different uses of parentheses, such as round and square brackets, and use them accordingly.
● Overusing parentheses makes sentences difficult to read.
● Not matching the opening and closing parentheses causes confusion.
● Putting a comma instead of a closing parenthesis, or vice versa.
● Forgetting to use the parentheses, causing the sentence to lose its meaning or context.
1. How do I use parentheses to enclose citations and references in academic writing?
When crediting a source used in academic writing, you include essential information within parentheses. This information will vary according to the referencing style used. APA, for example, requires the author’s last name, year of publication, and page number if the reference is a direct quote.
2. How do parentheses differ in formal and informal writing?
Visually, parentheses command a bit more attention than a comma or dash, which means they are easily seen. If you’re going for a more formal feel, commas or dashes might be a better choice.
We hope this overview of parentheses is helpful to you. In summary:
Parenthesis is additional, non-essential information that interrupts the text.
Parenthetical information must be offset within the text by parentheses, commas, or dashes.
Parentheses can be round brackets or square brackets, and these have different purposes.
Parentheses come in pairs.
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