(Too Many) Parentheses

Ah, the glory of a (crisp) fall day: yellow leaves (crunching underfoot), apples hanging (low) on the tree, and a clear blue sky (with the occasional line of geese heading north).

Parentheses (also called round brackets informally) are like someone yelling “wait!” in the middle of your beautifully-crafted writing. (See what I mean?)

Every time you come across a set of parentheses, you need to stop, pull back to look at the writing around it, and insert the information.

You know people who constantly hit the brakes and speed up while they’re driving? Parentheses can make you feel like that: car sick.

In general, writing should be a smooth process. You build one idea and smoothy link it to the next. Every so often, you lead the reader to pause and think about an important idea. That’s rhythm and giving your writing a chance to breathe. (If you keep putting in parentheses, the ride feels a lot more jerky.)

But wait, you say! What about using parentheses to add examples? You certainly can use them that way … but is that the best way?

Instead, consider starting a new sentence or setting off your examples in a list or with bullets. That gives the eye and the brain more space to absorb your examples.

Am I anti-parentheses?

Not at all. But I do believe that they should be used sparingly. At just the right time, a well-placed set of parentheses can pop and bring life to your writing. Used too often, they overwhelm. Imagine peppering your writing with exclamation marks — they would quickly stop being effective.

When you do use parentheses, make sure you include the correct punctuation (such as a period), if you’re putting a whole sentence inside the parentheses.

If you’re only putting a sentence fragment in parentheses (like this), the final punctuation goes outside the parentheses.

Finally, the main thing to remember with parentheses is that your original sentence should always make sense if you took the parentheses out. Here are examples of how to use them correctly:

Dentists brush their teeth three times a day. (Or so they say!)
I don’t feel like eating that (stale) muffin.

Notice how both those sentences could also have been written without parentheses?

Now, tell me, where do you stand on parentheses? (What’s your personal limit?)