Last week we began our mini-series on parentheses and when, where, and how to use them. This week we’ll go a little deeper, focusing on the way they interact with other sentence elements?particularly where capitalization and punctuation are concerned.
The general rule is to avoid capitalization if the parenthetical is located midsentence, even if the text inside the parentheses is structured as a full sentence.
Example A: He’s not really addressing her argument (she insisted that the situations were different, warranting different treatment).
Of course, proper nouns are an exception.
Example B: Sarah, Jenn, and Kenaia (Jenn’s sister-in-law) drove up together.
If the parentheses are situated separately from the sentence, normal sentence punctuation is used.
Example C: He’s not really addressing her argument. (Or maybe he just doesn’t want to admit he’s wrong.)
What about multiple sentences enclosed within parentheses? If you can avoid it, don’t include them within another sentence.
Example D (incorrect?or just awkward): I passed the ice cream truck on the way home (as always, it was surrounded by customers. It’s really an excellent business model) but continued on my way.
In the above, it’s hard to determine which sentence should be capitalized, which should get a period, and how you make the two sentences line up with established punctuation norms. That’s why in most cases it’s best to rewrite:
Example D (rewritten): I passed the ice cream truck on the way home (as always, it was surrounded by customers; it’s really an excellent business model) but continued on my way.
Example D (rewritten): I passed the ice cream truck on the way home but continued on my way. (As always, it was surrounded by customers. It’s really an excellent business model.)
In editing, I don’t often like to say never, and sometimes applying this preference gets fuzzy in fiction, particularly with short, question-type parentheticals. In cases like Example E below, separating the questions with a comma wouldn’t create the same tone as using question marks. My strategy?and one I’ve seen used elsewhere?would be to use the question marks and eschew capitalization altogether. Can you see the following construction fitting in, say, a Young Adult novel?
Example E: I don’t know what to ask him (why? how? when?), and I’m not sure I’d understand his answer, either.
Punctuation that belongs in the parentheses stays between the parentheses?obviously.
Example G: I didn’t think we’d ever met before (had we?), but she seemed to think otherwise.
But what about punctuation belonging to the surrounding text?
The key here is to treat the parentheses (and the text between them) as one unit with whatever they’re clarifying or explaining. Therefore, commas and periods and other punctuation that would follow a word normally must follow the entire unit, or word + parentheses.
Example F (incorrect): She submitted her assignment, (which was a redo) her essay, and her final project in the same week.
Example F (corrected): She submitted her assignment (which was a redo), her essay, and her final project in the same week.
The same applies when a parenthetical follows a phrase or thought or concept:
Example G (incorrect): I had expected some argument, (he was, after all, the child of two lawyers) but he agreed to my terms quite readily.
Example G (corrected): I had expected some argument (he was, after all, the child of two lawyers), but he agreed to my terms quite readily.
And watch for double commas, a common error when we try to break the rule and keep it too:
Example H (incorrect): She’d told me that a hundred times, (okay, maybe more like ten), but I kept forgetting.
Example H (corrected): She’d told me that a hundred times (okay, maybe more like ten), but I kept forgetting.
That’s the basics on parentheses, but don’t forget that capitalizing and punctuating parentheticals correctly isn’t the whole story. As I showed last week, too many parentheticals (even done well) can be altogether too much of a good thing. Use like a good seasoning?just the right amount, and suited to whatever you’re preparing.
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.