Using Parenthesis (In English) Posted by Gary Locke on Oct 2, 2020 in English Language, punctuation
In my capacity as an editor, I often find that the parenthetical statement is overused and misunderstood. And the use of parenthesis as a form of punctuation seems to perplex even the best writer. Let’s see if we can fix that, shall we?
What is a Parenthetical Statement?
A parenthetical statement, often called a parenthetical clause or parenthetical phrase, is a statement made inside another statement. It is an aside, offering extra information to the reader without changing the thought of the larger sentence. It is the equivalent of grabbing the reader by the arm, pulling them close, and whispering something in their ear before continuing on with the story. In fact, the first sentence of this paragraph contained a parenthetical statement. “A parenthetical statement, often called a parenthetical clause or parenthetical phrase, is a statement made inside another statement.”
But when using parenthetical phrases a writer runs the risk of overcomplicating a sentence. Simple, clear writing is always best. Let me demonstrate this by rewriting some of that previous paragraph again.
“A parenthetical statement is a statement made inside another statement. Often called a parenthetical clause or parenthetical phrase, it serves as an aside, offering extra information to the reader without changing the thought of the larger sentence. It is the equivalent of grabbing the reader by the arm, pulling them close, and whispering something in their ear before continuing on with the story.”
Both paragraphs make sense, but the second version seems just a little cleaner to me, a little less cluttered.
Also, notice that you don’t need to use parenthesis to make a parenthetical statement. It is certainly the easiest way to identify them, but they can also be separated from the rest of the sentence by brackets, commas, or a dash. And this leads to my other problem with parenthesis. How do you deal with punctuation when using parentheses?
Punctuation and Parenthesis
A parenthesis is a form of punctuation, as is a comma and a dash. The plural of parenthesis is parentheses. You will always use two parentheses when making a parenthetical statement. How, then, do you insert punctuation inside another form of punctuation? Here’s an example of a complete sentence, with a parenthetical phrase added to the end. Because the parenthetical follows the complete sentence, the period is placed after the parenthetical.
- Bruce certainly knew a lot about science fiction (although he had no idea who Harlan Ellison was).
In this example, special punctuation, like an exclamation or a question mark, go inside the parentheses. But, again, this comes at the end of a sentence, so a period is required.
- Bruce’s knowledge of science fiction was impressive (he could crush you in Star Wars trivia!).
Some parenthetical statements stand on their own. What do you do then? The punctuation sits inside the parentheses.
- Bruce’s encyclopedic-like knowledge of science fiction was astonishing. (Although, for some reason, he had never heard of Harlan Ellison.)
If a parenthetical phrase falls in the middle of a larger sentence, keep all surrounding punctuation outside the parentheses.
- You can ask Bruce about science fiction in all its forms, from movies (his knowledge of Star Wars is astounding), to classic novels (he has a vast collection of old paperbacks from the 60s), to modern forms like graphic novels (he loves the Strange Planet series).
Special Uses for Parenthesis
Parenthesis is used when indicating the time zone.
- The ship will arrive in port at 10 a.m. (GMT)
Area codes in the U.S. are commonly enclosed in parentheses.
- (207) 555-1212
Important dates may also be found inside the parenthesis.
- The American Revolutionary War (1775 -1783) is also known as the American War for Independence.
As I said, a parenthesis should be used sparingly. And parenthetical thought is always just a little piece of information, a tidbit. Don’t overuse it.