Top Punctuation Howlers – Parentheses

Most Experts Agree: Use Parentheses with Caution

Great for stream-of-conscious writing, parentheses are adaptable to most informal situations and can even on occasion make the reader feel like they’re part of your club. It conveys natural interjections that may occur in day-to-day conversations with those you trust, but there is also a dark side to parentheses …

Parentheses can often be jarring, lead to confusion or misinterpretation, contort the meaning of a sentence, and dangerously approach run-on sentence status.

In Brief: Use Parentheses Sparingly!

Many English language experts will warn writers that parentheses often convey a snarky, sophomoric tone to your writing with its abrupt asides and gossip-like tone. Instead of using parentheses, it’s recommended to try writing a sentence in another way or to use commas for nonrestrictive clauses.

If you won’t let that little warning dissuade you from using parentheses (as so many authors do), bear these guidelines in mind to keep your credibility and intent intact.

Quick Parentheses Punctuation and Capitalization Guide

  • The parenthesis should never appear alone – it should always appear with its mate to form parentheses: ( ).*
  • Punctuation never precedes an opening parenthesis if the parenthetical statement occurs within a sentence.
  • The period occurs outside a closing parenthesis if the parenthetical statement occurs within a sentence.
  • The period occurs before a closing parenthesis if the parenthetical statement is a complete sentence and it’s independent from the previous statement.

*Exception: emoticons ;)

Additional Parentheses Rules

Use parentheses for asides or interruptions for statements stronger than a comma, but not as intense as a dash. This can be done in an independent sentence or statement dependent on another sentence.

The dog thinks the cat forgave him. (He is sorely mistaken.)
The dog thinks the cat forgave him (fat chance).

Use parentheses to interject exclamations or questions.

The dog stole the cat’s latest quantum physics theorem. (Believe me, it was a stretch, because that dog doesn’t even own a library card!)
The cat shipped the dog off to Egypt (or was it Antarctica?) while their masters were away.

Use parentheses for comments introduced by namely, e.g., i.e., viz, that is, see, and see also.

While the dog was in Antarctica, he attempted to communicate with the natives and failed (that is, the penguins couldn’t speak “woof”).

Use parentheses around numbers or letters listing items in a series that are part of running text.

The cat began to feel remorseful of the poor dog’s demise and decided to (1) go to Antarctica, (2) find the dog, (3) apologize to the dog, and (4) return home with the dog.

In legalese, numbers are first spelled out and then numerically provided within parentheses.

Meanwhile, the dog decided to settle in Antarctica after meeting a colony of fur seals and decided to purchase a bit of ice to call his own:

“I, Dog, hereby purchase ice for fifty thousand (50,000) krill.”

Great for first-person fiction or autobiographical writing, parentheses can engage readers and provide a little more personal insight into your articles. However, if you’re aiming for a formal tone, it’s best to simplify the sentence and avoid parentheses altogether.

Did you miss our last edition of Top Punctuation Howlers? Find out more about the dash here!

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Joe Helms writes:

Punctuation at the end or not? That was a question I always had, as sometimes is felt right, and other times something seemed off.

This clears that up greatly. Thanks! This series of ‘Punctuation Howlers’ has been great.

Comment provided October 5, 2012 at 10:13 AM


Randall Magwood writes:

I use parentheses quite a bit in my articles to suggest a “side thought” (i just made that one up! lol).

I also think they’re a good way to give your reader insight about how you think, and can give them an idea about the kind of person that you are outside the confines of an article.

Comment provided October 5, 2012 at 10:29 AM


CH James writes:

I completely agree with your “outside the confines of the article” point.

You can write a clean and crisp article that’s full of information and still include the ever-important human element without having to pen the whole piece in a tone that may feel too casual for the topic or audience. Best of both worlds!


kay mistretta writes:

I totally agree that you should be careful the way you punctuate things, and it is important to say what you think wihtout offending the audience.

Comment provided October 5, 2012 at 12:28 PM


Edmund Sykes writes:

You have said, Penny, that you always have to close the parentheses but surely there are exceptions other that emoticons:

1) When introducing a number of points which are clearer when numbered and:
a) Sub points which are often indented.

Looking forward to the debate! Edmund

Comment provided October 5, 2012 at 1:35 PM


Sharyn Sheldon writes:

Penny, these were the best examples of use of parentheses I’ve seen. They gave me a good chuckle. I’m a grammar geek myself, so I knew the rules. But, I’ve never seen them used with cats and dogs before!

Brilliant :)

Comment provided October 5, 2012 at 4:08 PM


Paddy Landau writes:

One more clarification of the use of punctuation with parentheses:

The structure of a parenthetical item should be such that if you entirely remove the parenthetical item (i.e. the contents and the parentheses themselves), what is left behind must still make sense.

In other words, the sentence must always stand correct, alone, if the parenthetical item is removed.

Here is an example:

I, Dog, (of the canine species, am), yellow.

That example is incorrect and not just because of the punctuation before the opening parenthesis. If you remove the parenthetical item, you are left with a double-comma and a missing verb:

I, Dog, , yellow.

I have seen ugly constructs such as that too often.

A correct rewrite would be:

I, Dog (of the canine species), am yellow.

Or, better:

I, Dog, a canine, am yellow.

Or better still:

I am Dog, a yellow canine.

Comment provided October 6, 2012 at 7:04 AM


Vijay Khosla writes:

Enjoyed reading the examples of Dog & Cat which made the article more interesting.

Comment provided October 8, 2012 at 10:22 AM


alex conway writes:

Penny, thank you for your post. The more content I read from you the more I learn and can use to write to benefit my reader.

Comment provided October 11, 2012 at 8:23 PM


S. Hauzel Sailo writes:

Its a great lesson for me.
I so need grammar lessons.
Love you, all the luck and best.

Comment provided May 16, 2013 at 11:08 AM


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