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Saturday, April 18, 2009

How and When to Use Parentheses

Parentheses are most commonly seen these days as the lower half of emoticons. They're good for much more than just being the smile in a smiley face, though. Learning how to properly use the crescents atop your 9 and 0 keys can add a whole new dimension to your writing. The following is as comprehensive a list as of parenthetical uses as I could come up with. If I'm missing one, be sure to let me know!

Use Parentheses to Enclose Numbers or Letters in a Series

There is no hard-set rule for using parentheses to set off items in a series. That's good news for you because that means you have quite a few options from which to choose. Get creative and choose one of the following options that best represents your style. Notice I said ONE of the following. Consistency is best in that it makes your writing cohesive and doesn't confuse your readers. So even if you think mixing up all the different styles of setting off items with parentheses looks so cool, restrain yourself for your readers' sake.

  • Three elements to a story include (1)characters, (2)setting, and (3)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include 1)characters, 2)setting, and 3)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include 1.)characters, 2.)setting, and 3.)plot
  • Three elements to a story include (a)characters, (b)setting, and (c)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include a)characters, b)setting, and c)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include a.)characters, b.)setting, and c.)plot.

Use Parentheses to Enclose Supplemental Information

This "supplemental information" includes asides, tangents, and afterthoughts. In general, anything that can be removed from the sentence without altering its meaning can be enclosed in parentheses. Take a look at the following examples to get a better idea of what counts as extraneous material.

For the last five years (some say longer), the house on the hill has been haunted.

We read Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" (one of my favorite stories) this semester in class.

Use Parentheses to Indicate the Plural of Nouns

Sometimes you may not know whether or not you are dealing with a noun that is singular or plural. At other times, you may actually try to hide from your audience how many (if any) of the nouns are present. If the idea of not knowing in advance how many of a thing you are writing about (or intentionally trying to hide that number) confuses you, just look at the following examples.

If anyone has any information about the person(s) who committed this crime, please call the sheriff's office.

In the following section of the exam, circle the grammatical error(s) in each of the sentences.

Use Parentheses to Indicate an Acronym

When writing, it is often much easier to substitute an abbreviation for an unwieldy word (or set of words). It's convention to write whatever it is that will be abbreviated out in full at least once in a document and to indicate  next to it enclosed in parentheses the acronym that will thereafter be used to refer to it. In MLA style, it's actually required to do so.

President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.

The mission of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is to stop drunk driving altogether.

Use Parentheses to Enclose Dates

When including the dates for a person or event, place them in parentheses immediately to the right of the person or event they refer to.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is one of my favorite poets.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) is an inspiration to aspiring authors everywhere.

Use Parentheses to Enclose Citations

I will go into much further detail about citation styles in following posts. For now, it's enough to say that parentheses play a huge part in executing in-text citations (a.k.a. parenthetical citations).

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is one of the most well-known quotes in literature, even among those who have never read A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens).
Whew! For such unobtrusive marks of punctuation, you can sure get quite a bit of use out of parentheses. One last word of warning: as with all things in life, use parentheses only in moderation. Even the most tolerant of readers can become irritated by a set of parentheses every other word.

Photo credit: theilr


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Does this work?
We hiked up the mountain for one hour. We then hiked (in) for another quarter hour, until reaching the bowl.

Hi, Anonymous! I'm so sorry for taking this long to get back to you; Blogger just now showed me your comment. Your use of parentheses would be odd for a formal paper (I'd suggest writing an extra sentence to elaborate on the fact that you were hiking INTO the area instead of the assumed UP), but for informal writing (like a comment on Facebook or a blog post) it does work. I make little clarifications like that all the time when writing informally and know my audience won't hold it against me that I didn't take the time to write another sentence or paragraph to clarify. I actually prefer the brevity of being able to add a snippet of info in parentheses like that - like an info hit-and-run.

Hope that helps!!

Thanks bro. This was really helpful, and I'm glad to see that some people remember that those weird symbols on keyboards have an actual use.

Acronyms and abbreviations are not the same.
An acronym is the first letter of each word in a set that by themselves form a pronounceable word; Mothers Against Drunk Drivers,MADD. An abbreviation is the same, but does not form a word; Central Intelligence Agency, CIA. MADD is an acronym, CIA is an abbreviation.

Per MLA rules, is the following use of parentheses to enclose reference correct?
Autopsy Report: On 04/05/12, the Department also received a copy of the investigator’s narrative from the County Coroner in regards to child, Baby Boy, and a confirmed positive toxicology screen for methamphetamine.  (See Exhibit A.)

 Grammatically, your example is absolutely correct because "See" makes the sentence within the parentheses complete. 

Unless the literature has a different trend, I'd include the directive to see the exhibit in the sentence, though. In medical publications, at least, you see the following more frequently:

preoperative and postoperative data were available on 27 of the 57 patients who were receiving or had recently suspended
clopidogrel (Table 2)."If it's common to see references to appendices, etc. in a separate parenthetical sentence, then by all means, use your example. There's nothing grammatically incorrect about it :),

It is, then, unnecessary to use an entire sentence in parentheses?

"My idea (Do you think it is a good one?) was presented to the teacher earlier."

One can write a small addition without adding punctuation or capitalization?

 Hi Atarii! Your conclusion is correct - the content inside the parentheses (if contained within a sentence, like this one) need not be a complete sentence and need not have capitalization or end punctuation (unless necessary to indicate emphasis ! or inquiry ? ).  Your example of (Do you think it is a good one?) is correct, but variations, such as (Is it a good one?), (a good one?), or (any good?) are perfectly acceptable as well.

I am writing my writing guarantee project and getting important points from different blogs and forums and This is my pleasure to being here on this blog..

your audience how many (if any) of the nouns are present. If the idea of
not knowing in advance how many of a thing you are writing about (or
intentionally trying to hide that number) confuses you, just look at the
following examples.
rush essay

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