Beyond PR

Dec 24, 2012

Grammar Hammer: Parentheses: More Than Just the Lower Half of an Emoticon

How often are you using parentheses in your writing? Personally, I’d wager that 90% of my text messages with friends and family involve the use of parentheses to react to the conversation I’m having. In a more professional setting, I think I have some work to do on my writing. I use parentheses a lot to express supplemental information (which probably means I need to improve my writing to not have to explain everything as an aside, something I will resolve to do in 2013).

A friend suggested I look at the use of parentheses as a topic for this column.  As soon as she mentioned overuse of parentheses, I started watching for them. I don’t see this too often in the context of the news releases that cross my desk every day. But, when I pull up my favorite blogs or grab the latest trashy novel I’m reading, the parenthetical context changes and I get wrapped up in the story and the more conversational tone of the writer. Often, that involves the use of parentheses to express an aside (can you believe that the protagonist of this story actually falls for that crazy, eccentric billionaire with the crazy fetish?).

There are six primary uses for parentheses (thanks to Writing Simplified for the succinct list).

  • Use parentheses to indicate an acronym – Please consider donating a few dollars to the Cleveland Animal Protective League (Cleveland APL) to help homeless doggies and kitties have food and shelter and hope for a new home for the holidays.
  • Use parentheses to enclose dates – Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is the historical figure I would like to have dinner with if I could travel back in time.
  • Use parentheses to enclose citations – The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep (WC Fields).
  • Use parentheses to indicate the plural of nouns – If anyone has information about the person(s) who committed this crime, please call your local police.
  • Use parentheses to enclose numbers or letters in a series – Before I can start cooking Christmas dinner, I need to (1) get the turkey, (2) make the stuffing, (3) buy a dessert, (4) chill the wine.
  • Use parentheses to enclose supplemental information. The key here is that the information being enclosed in the parentheses will not alter the meaning of the sentence if it is removed – An annual Christmas tradition in my house is to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” (one of my favorite movies). Em dashes can also be used for extraneous information, but they are used more to indicate emphasis than just extra detail. Parentheses indicate less emphasis or importance.

Happy Holidays (in whatever way you choose to celebrate)!

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

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