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(All About) Parentheses
The singular form is parenthesis, but the plural parentheses is the word you’re more likely to see. Both words have a wide
range of related meanings, and what some people identify as a parenthesis, others call parentheses.
So let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, a parenthesis is one of a pair of curved marks that look like this: ( ), and parentheses are both marks.
A symbol, number, letter, word, phrase, or clause that is in parentheses explains, supplements, or comments on something in the sentence. Material in parentheses
can be removed from a sentence without changing that sentence’s overall meaning or grammatical integrity.
Note the use of is in this sentence: My friend (and her brother) is coming today. The subject is My friend. Despite appearances, parentheses are never part of the subject. Remove them and we’d have two subjects, My friend and her brother, which would require the verb are coming. The use of parentheses is a clue that the writer was more concerned about the friend than about the brother.
Parentheses, long dashes, and commas are the three punctuation marks that indicate an interruption in the flow of a sentence. (Some might add semicolons,
which can turn two simple sentences into a single, more complex sentence: Their eyes met; she smiled.)
Commas, the least intrusive of the three, signal the presence of relevant but nonessential data. Long dashes either expand upon the main point or take a
slight detour from it. Parentheses by their very appearance let the reader know that the information fenced off by those vertical curves is a departure
from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate:
• Blaine, who was born in 1797 and died in 1860, did not live to see the Civil War.
• Blaine—he was born in 1797 and died in 1860—did not live to see the Civil War.
• Blaine (1797-1860) did not live to see the Civil War.
Sometimes the choice is clear. For instance, you’d never see this sentence: Blaine—1797-1860—did not live to see the Civil War.
But it is also true that a writer’s use of one of these marks instead of another is often a matter of personal taste.
Parentheses can be used to form a separate sentence, as here: I hoped my friend was coming. (He canceled at the last minute.) But the writer could
also have done this: I hoped my friend was coming (he canceled at the last minute). Note the placement of the period; if parentheses end a
sentence, the period goes after the closing parenthesis.
Commas virtually always follow parentheses rather than precede them. This sentence is incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner. Make it When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.
Writers have a lot of leeway with parentheses, as long as they heed a few simple guidelines. Used shrewdly (and sparingly!), parentheses add color, nuance,
and spice to your writing.
Because of the e-newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's “Grammar Blog.”
Correct any sentence that needs it.
1. When Tony showed up, (he was right on time) we had a long talk.
2. LaDonna (along with Alicia, Dwayne, and Alphonse) all showed up at once.
3. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited.)
4. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!)
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Changes Coming to Our GrammarBook.com Website
We want to alert all of our newsletter readers and visitors to our website that we will soon begin updating the English Rules section of GrammarBook.com to reflect the contents of the eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. These revisions will take place over the next couple of months.
We researched the leading reference books on American English grammar and punctuation including The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and many others. As before, we will provide rules, guidance, and examples based on areas of general agreement among these authorities. Where the authorities differ, we will emphasize guidance and provide options to follow based on your purpose in writing, with this general advice: be consistent.
The batteries were given out free of charge.
A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. When Tony showed up (he was right on time), we had a long talk.
2. LaDonna, along with Alicia, Dwayne, and Alphonse, all showed up at once.
3. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited).
OR Do not exceed 25 mph. (You will be cited.)
4. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!).
OR After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water. (He really needed it!)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.