How to Use Parentheses

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Emoticons are older than you think. This example above was published in the March 30, 1881 issue of Puck, a satirical magazine.

Parentheses are a pair of curving lines used for smiley faces and sad faces. They are also sometimes used in writing to offset information from the sentence that is not vital. And by not vital, I mean that the information could be skipped over and the reader would still be able to understand the main topic and discern the meaning of your sentence.

So what kind of information ends up inside parentheses? These so called parenthetical moments are for examples, asides, additions, afterthoughts, slight digressions, and explanations. Sometimes the information inside the parentheses fits nicely with the grammar of the sentence. Sometimes it doesn’t (and by no means is it required to). But unlike their cousins the dash and comma, which tend to highlight the information, the parentheses draw attention away from the information and de-emphasize its importance. This is one reason to use them sparingly; they arrest the flow of your writing.

 

PUNCTUATION

At the End
Punctuation can appear inside or outside the closing parenthesis.

When a complete sentence is contained within the parentheses, then place an end punctuation mark inside the last parenthesis. Make sure to capitalize the first word in the parentheses too.

I never want to go to Disneyland (I know it sounds crazy but it is true. I just never understood the appeal.)

When a word, phrase, or clause appears within the parentheses, then place an end punctuation mark outside the last parenthesis.

Disneyland is the happiest place on earth (yeah right).

If the parenthetical information is not at the end of the sentence, don’t use any end punctuation. Just let it hang in the middle of the sentence.

The happiest place on earth (besides Yosemite National Park) is a maternity wards.

 

Commas
Commas never appear before parentheses. A comma should follow the parentheses since the information that you place there is part of the preceding clause. But a comma is not always required.

INCORRECT: The near extinction of the mountain lion, (also panther, puma, catamount, or cougar) and now recovery, is quite remarkable.

WRONG: The near extinction of the mountain lion (also panther, puma, catamount, or cougar), and now recovery, is quite remarkable.

 

WHEN TO USE

I. Incidental Information
The most common use, as we have been discussing, involves adding information to sentences. This information is additional or incidental, and the ultimate meaning of the sentence does not depend on what is inside of the parentheses.

Explanations

The Higgs Boson (an elementary, subatomic particle first theorized in 1964, which allows matter to have mass) was tentatively confirmed to exist on March 14, 2013.

Examples

Science still has many questions to answer (Does life exist on other planets? Why do animals need sleep? How many animals live in the ocean?), and so we need to encourage more students to pursue careers in science.

Asides

The challenge is a hard one (and I am not saying that I won’t try), but you should know from the beginning that it is likely that we will fail.

 

II. Numbering Lists
When writing out a numbered list, and the items in the list are longer than a single sentence, use parentheses to contain the number. This is a matter of convention that increases readability.

The process for making pizza is relatively straightforward: (1) pour flour, salt, and sugar into a food processor. Pulse until thoroughly mixed. (2) In tepid water, add the yeast. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes until the water becomes foamy and bubbly. This should be a dramatic change. If not, the water was either too cold or too hot. Try again if so. (3) Turn food processor on and slowly incorporate the water and yeast. The key is to do this slowly. Don’t rush. (4) Once all the water and yeast is incorporated  you should be left with a very sticky ball of dough. Dump onto a well floured surfaced and knead briefly. Form into two balls. (5) Place balls of dough on an oiled baking sheet, cover, and place in the frig for at least 24 hours. (6) Remove dough 4 hours before use. (7) Roll out and bake with your favorite sauce and toppings.

 

III. A Shorthand for Plurals
Not entirely uncommon, parentheses are used to indicate the singular and plural version of a word. Maybe the author is unsure which will occur or it might depend on the context, where sometimes it is singular and sometimes it is plural, and so the author follows this convention to save a little space and explanation.

For the fundraiser, please place your coin(s) in the jar.

 

 How Ideas (and all else) are Related

 

Language limits the way that ideas relate to other ideas. And not just ideas, but events, phenomenon, places, animals, and chemicals can only be connected to each other in a finite number of ways. The relationship of one thing to another or of one event to another does not exceed three. Strange that we live in such a varied and complex world, yet we only came up with three fundamental ways to relate things.

The three modes are continuation, contrast, and cause-and-effect. (I am curious if other languages have more ways to connect ideas and events. If you have any insights, please leave me a note in the comments).

Knowing these different modes of relation will help you succeed on the reading sections, text completion questions, and writing measures of your test. But that’s only the beginning. By knowing the limits of language, you can begin to build meaning at the level of the sentence. And not only building meaning at the level of the sentence, but knowing that you can’t pack too much into one sentence. The means of relation limit how much can really be said in a sentence.

Don’t feel limited by this revelation. Although it may seem that with only three ways to relate ideas, you are limited. But complex relations can are still relatable.  From the building up of connections and relations over sentences and paragraphs, complexity emerges. But you have to first atomize your ideas before you can relate something complex. Think about the connection of the parts. Discern their relations. Then consider how best to relate what you want to relate. What will make it easy to understand? What will ensure that your reader will understand you?

For the test, you will want to identify these signals to understand what type of word you are looking for to complete a sentence or how a sentence might contain an example or a counterexample. With regard to sentences, a contrast word, like “despite,” will signal a change in the sentence, and based on where the blank is, you may be looking for a word with a positive connotation. But, remove “despite” from the sentence, and you will be looking for a word with a negative connotation.

For passages, signal words will let you know if the main idea is being summarized, if a scope is being established, or an example is being offered to explain some proposition. Noting these moments in the paragraph, either mentally or on paper, will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when you need to answer a question. You will know where to look for an answer, and you will be able to identify wrong answers that don’t fit with the structure and organization of the paragraph. For example, a wrong answer will test your ability to see that the tone has changed in a paragraph or that the author has moved from presenting a theory to critiquing it.

So when you are reading, make note of the words listed below. This is not a complete list, but will get you started on the path to understanding the connection of ideas in a sentence and in a paragraph.

Continuation Signals
additionally
also
and
as well
besides
furthermore
indeed
for example
likewise
;
moreover
too

Contrast Signals
albeit
although
anomalous
but
despite
even though
however
in contrast to
in spite of
instead of
ironically
nevertheless
nonetheless
on the contrary
on the other hand
paradoxical
rather than
surprise
unexpected
while
yet

Cause-and-Effect Signals
accordingly
because
consequently
given
hence
if … then
in order to
so … that
therefore
thus
when … then
whatever

 How to Use Apostrophes

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My cheese, as in Kevin’s cheese, should not be moved. Don’t touch it!

Apostrophes are used for omission and possession, connection and contraction. Unless you are a poet or a songwriter, you will most often use the apostrophe for showing possession or a loose connection between two things. But in this article, we’ll cover both.

THE BASICS

Possession and Connection
Add an apostrophe and an -s to a word to show possession or ownership of something.

grizzly bear‘s honey

Sean‘s blog

Notice that the apostrophe + s form can be written as a prepositional phrase, but may sound a little awkward. So, apostrophes can be an excellent way to make things clear and concise in your writing.

honey of the Grizzly bear

blog of Sean

Omission and Contraction

The other common use of the apostrophe is to signal that a letter or two has been removed or that two words have been joined together.

Contraction: cannot = cant

Contraction: does not = doesnt

Omission: over = oer

Omission: going = goin

 

NITTY GRITTY DETAILS

1. Singular Nouns Ending in -s

Unfortunately for writers, style guides disagree on what to do in this situation. Some style guides (Oxford University Press, Modern Language Association, the BBC and The Economist) ask the reader to always attach an apostrophe and -s to the word.

Jesus‘s disciples

Thomas‘s tavern

Chess‘s strategy

Dallas‘s downtown district

goodness‘s sake

Other style guides (The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style) let the writer drop the -s and only use an apostrophe. Since a double -s can cause some difficulty when reading, these other guides allow for the -s to be dropped.

Jesus disciples

Thomas tavern

Chess strategy

Dallas downtown district

goodness sake

2. Plural Nouns Ending in -s
When a plural noun ends with an -s, only add an apostrophe.

the plums pits

kids corner

cities residents

Irregular plurals that do not end in -s, should have both the apostrophe and the -s added. However, this can create some strange and awkward readings, so consider rewriting the phrase or sentence to avoid the awkwardness.

Awkward: the two dice‘s sides

Easier to Read: the sides of the two dice

3. Words that end with an -s sound

Some words do not end with an -s, but with an -s sound. Sometimes adding both the apostrophe and the -s can lead to an awkward word to read. If this is the case, some style guides allow the -s to be dropped; other style guides don’t allow you to drop the -s. I’d say the choice is yours unless you have a specific style guide that you are required to follow.

Awkward: convenience‘s sake

Awkward: mice‘s home

Easier to Read: convenience sake

Easier to Read: mice home

These phrases could be rewritten to completely avoid the issue, but it will lead to a wordier expression. You will need to decide what is preferable based on the context.

Rewrite: the sake of convenience

Rewrite: home of the mice

4. Joint Ownership

If more than one person owns something, place the apostrophe and -s on the last noun.

No: Jack‘s and Jill‘s bucket of water

Yes: Jack and Jill‘s bucket of water

But if two or more people own two distinct things, then place the apostrophe and -s on both nouns. Notice that the noun changes from singular to plural in this case.

Jack‘s and Jill‘s buckets of water

5. Omitting the Century from the Date

In some writing, usually less formal, the century can be omitted from the year with an apostrophe.

The 60s

06 earthquake

But in these cases, the century is understood by the reader. But if you are concerned about ambiguity or are writing in a formal setting, write the whole date out.

The 1560s

1906 earthquake

6. For making plurals of letter, numbers, and abbreviations

This is yet another rule that is not universally applied. In some cases, style guides will recommend using an apostrophe and an -s to letters, numbers, and abbreviations. But this can sometimes be ambiguous since adding an apostrophe and an -s to words makes them possessive. So decide for yourself what you prefer.

One way: P‘s and Q‘s

One way: How many 8‘s are there?

One way: CD‘s and DVD‘s 

The Other Way: Ps and Qs

The Other Way: How many 8s are there?

The Other Way: CDs and DVD

7. Not with Geographic Places or Names

Perhaps the most peculiar rule, the United States Board on Geographic Name dropped all apostrophes from names. We rarely think of this case as being strange, but once I learned this rule, I started to notice it everywhere. (Some exceptions do apply, like Martha’s Vineyard, though).

Incorrect: Lucy’s Foot Pass, King’s Canyon Pass, Ca.

Incorrect: Edward‘s Run Wildlife Management Area, Capon Bridge, WV

Correct: Lucys Foot Pass, Kings Canyon Pass, Ca.

Incorrect: Edwards Run Wildlife Management Area, Capon Bridge, WV

 Single or Double Quotation Marks?

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When should you use single quotes and when should you used double quotes?

A straightforward question with a not so straightforward answer.

The first answer is that it depends on where your readers are, and the second answer is that it actually doesn’t matter where your readers are. In the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, convention tends toward double quotes.

In this quote from The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, the reader is confronted with the narrator’s musing about his characters at the end of the story: “I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with a person more nearly allied to the common run of man.”

In the United Kingdom and South Africa, convention tends toward the single quote, but even here double quotes are not uncommon.

And earlier in The Razor’s Edge, ‘He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than himself.’

Ultimately, your preference can outweigh any regional convention. But whatever your decision, don’t mix—remain consistent with quotation marks throughout the piece.

 

But sometimes, you need them both. Both single and double quotes are necessary when quoting a text that contains direct speech or when there is speech within speech.

Original text:

She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.

‘We’ve had some good times together. Keep a good recollection of me.’

Quoted text:

“She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.

“‘We’ve had some good times together. Keep a good recollection of me.’”

 

Remember that quotes are used to indicate a special use of a word or to indicate irony or to tell the reader that you are talking about the word not using it. In these situations, a single or double quotation mark can be used. (If you missed the earlier articles, click here to learn about punctuating quotes and click here to learn about when to use quotes.)

 

Special Use (the original text without quotation marks):
That which will be shrunk
Must first be stretched.
That which will be weakened
Must first be strengthened.
That which will be torn down
Must first be raised up.
That which will be taken
Must first be given.
This is called “subtle illumination.”

– Lao Tzu, “36” Tao Te Ching

 

Irony:
“What a ‘deep’ voice you have,” said Little Snarky Red Riding Hood.
“What do you mean? Are you saying I have a squeaky voice? Take that back! Why are you so mean to me?” cried the mealy wolf.

 

Talking about the word—not using it:

The word “penumbra” can be used figuratively to great effect.

 

As a recommendation, use the quotation mark that you are not using for your citations or direct speech. So if you use double quotes for citations, use single quotes for the special use of a word. And if you use single quotes for citations, use the double quotes for a special use of a word. In this way, you can further signify your intent as well as delineate the different ways that quotation marks are used. This, however, is merely a suggestion and something you won’t likely find in a style manual.