Parentheses don’t belong in your copy—or do they?

Writing guides advise caution when deploying parentheses. Should you strike them from your copy altogether?

Recently, I tried to explain to my 9-year-old son about the use of parentheses. Here’s how the conversation went:

He: Mom, how do you know when you’re supposed to use parentheses? I: You use them around words that seem a bit out of place in the sentence. If you’re trying to explain something or make something more clear, or provide extra information, you put that in parentheses. He: Then the reader doesn’t really need to read what’s in parentheses? I: Not all the time. He: Then why put that information in there at all?

Now, my son is not at all fond of writing. So my first thought after this conversation was that he was just trying to get out of writing anything extra. Then I began to wonder if he was right—does the information in parentheses need to be in the sentence at all? If that information needs to be in the sentence, why is it in parentheses? Shouldn’t the writer just rework the sentence to include that information? According to the Associated Press Stylebook, parentheses should be used sparingly. It says:

“Parentheses are jarring to the reader. The temptation to use parentheses is a clue that a sentence is becoming contorted. Try to write it another way. If a sentence must contain incidental material, then commas or two dashes are frequently more effective. Use these alternatives whenever possible.”

The Chicago Manual of Style describes the use of parentheses as “stronger than a comma and similar to the dash . . . used to set of material from the surrounding text. Like dashes but unlike commas, parentheses can set off text that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.” Grammar Girl says, “Sometimes when you go back to edit your first draft, you’ll find that you can rework your sentence to include the parenthetical statement or simply delete the things in parentheses, unless they’re something like irreverent quips that are an intentional part of your tone.” Writers, editors, and PR professionals must fight for readers’ attention. To entice them to read our work, it must be clear, concise, lean, and focused. If parentheses signal to the reader, “Hey, I can skip whatever is in here,” should we be using parentheses in press releases, in website content, or on social media? Ragan.com readers, what do you think? Is there still a place for parentheses in our work? Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com. (Image via)

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