The Writer’s Toolbox – An Aside, Part I

Stumped by parentheses and parentheticals? In this mini-series we’ll look at parentheses and when and how to use them in your writing. In fact, once you’ve got their capitalization, punctuation, and nesting rules down, you’ll find that they’re quite easy to use (easy to overuse too, but we’ll get to that later).

Though parentheses are also used for citations in running text, in this series I’ll focus on parentheses used to interject, to insert a thought or explanation or clarification?in other words, used to convey information that’s not necessarily at the same level of importance as the surrounding text. That’s not to say the information is unimportant. Sometimes parentheses contain an important clarification, even if it’s less central than the word or phrase or concept it’s clarifying. But in many cases, especially in informal writing, parentheticals truly are parentheticals in the colloquial sense: nice-to-know information, a bit of whispered now-you-know it gossip whispered in the ear.

How Short Can You Go?
First, to dispel a myth: there are no rules on how long or short the material in the parentheses should be. Parentheses can enclose a full sentence, a single punctuation mark, or anything in between.

Example A: He agreed to do the job for “as much vodka as I can drink” (!), but he completed it on time and to my satisfaction.

Example B: He completed the job to my satisfaction. (And yes, I did give him the vodka.)

This also applies to situations where the parentheses enclose information that performs more of an explanatory role than offering an aside?like giving a common abbreviation, especially one that might be used more frequently than the full phrase:

Example C: He wrote about the constant fear of encountering improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Parentheticals really aren’t tricky to use, as long as you keep the punctuation right. It’s the when that is often the tougher call.

And that’s a matter of register?like most stylistic choices.

Parentheticals offer a little something extra to the reader. When that something is an explanation or clarification (as in Example C), parentheses might not be out of place in, say, academic or business writing.

But parentheses enclosing casual asides don’t make sense in that context, because they’re just too informal for the nature of the piece.

In fiction or more informal pieces (like this article), you have a bit more flexibility?because you’re engaging the reader on a more casual level, the conversational tone is expected. But be aware that even in this situation, parentheses can be overdone.

Because (as this sentence shows), a lot of parentheticals back to back (or side by side or in nearby paragraphs) can break up the sentence (or make the flow choppy) and get incredibly annoying (and/or read like a middle schooler’s diary). They’re like italics?a well-placed parenthetical can be very effective to shift the tone of a sentence or paragraph. But they should be used sparingly, a finishing touch rather than the main event.

Nested Parentheses
It’s rare that you need to include a parenthetical within a parenthetical, but it can happen, especially if you’re working with references. Know your style guide here, as practices differ. Chicago style prefers square brackets nested inside parentheses:

Example D: Set up multiple sets of parentheses like this (main text [and the nested parenthetical like this]).

Other styles, particularly in UK English, use sets of nested parentheses:

Example E: Set up multiple sets of parentheses like this (main text (and the nested parenthetical like this (and still further nested parentheticals like this))).

Either way, treat the parentheses like a Matrioshka doll?each complete set within the next biggest. Count them up and don’t leave off the closing parenthesis!

Now that we’ve gotten some of the basics out of the way, it’s time for a look at a few of the more technical aspects of using parentheses?how they interact with capitalization and punctuation rules. In next week’s installment we’ll take on when to capitalize parentheticals, where to put the punctuation, and what to do when you need to fit two sentences into a single set of parentheses.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.