How to Use Parentheses



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.



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 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.



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.


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.


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.


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.