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The Proper Use of Parentheses


The appropriate time to use parentheses in written English can be confusing. Although there are several technically correct uses, parentheses should be used sparingly. If overused, they can make it difficult for a reader to finish a piece. In general, when writers use parentheses incorrectly, it is to insert an idea that they feel is not strictly related to the topic at hand or to create a humorous effect. For beginning writers, it’s best to stick to the rules before experimenting with the language.

Correct Uses

Parentheses should be used to set apart structurally independent elements. This can be especially useful for technically oriented pieces. As an example, a text that is referring to a diagram or picture would use parentheses in the following manner:

The wind speeds exceeded the norm (see Figure 4).

A piece may also feature a sentence that has several distinct terms that serve as a list of examples. In this case, using parentheses to set apart each point on the list with a number or a letter is acceptable. Here is an example:

The patients suffered from a variety of symptoms including (a) hypersensitivity to light, (b) insomnia, and (c) hallucinations featuring 18th century literary figures.

For those texts that include mathematical expressions or that refer to special computer programming languages, parentheses should be used as they would be in the original equation or coding section:

(x - 1)(y + 2) require_once(“functions.php”);

Finally, parentheses should be used for citations or other references. The punctuation for the rest of the sentence should be placed outside the citation.

The esteemed editor lived in New York City (page 48, “Life in Cities,” Goodreads Press 2011).

Note that punctuation within the parentheses uses AP style.

Other Uses

If a writer feels that he must use parentheses, he should check to make sure that it is truly necessary. While literary texts will frequently use parentheses to create an emotional atmosphere, in most forms of technical or informative writing parentheses should be used strictly as a means to help break apart independent elements.

In some cases, it is necessary to put an entire clause or sentence in parentheses. Although beginning writers should try to construct pieces that do not use parentheses, if they do decide to set a sentence apart, they should always watch where they put their final punctuation marks. A sentence that is fully enclosed in parentheses should have the punctuation marks inside the parentheses, while a separate clause would have the punctuation marks outside the parentheses. Here are examples of both:

(I never thought this would work.)
I seemed very confident to others (although I never thought this work).

However, many mainstream publishers and editors will frown on this use of parentheses. They will say that each sentence could have either been written without parentheses or simply employed a comma to break apart clauses. This is why beginning writers should avoid using parentheses to set apart entire sentences or clauses unless they enjoy arguing about style.


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