Parentheses and Brackets
by Cherie Tucker
In the old typewriter days, there were no brackets on the keyboard. Legal documents that could have no handwritten corrections had to use parentheses inside of parentheses. Consequently, interruptions within parentheses were confusing. Double parentheses at the end of a sentence looked strange and always reminded me of the eyes of Charles Shultz’s Lucy when she’s upset or surprised. Fortunately we don’t have to worry about that anymore. We have both brackets and parentheses, and they have separate duties.
Parentheses indicate a whispered interruption in the flow of the sentence. They provide a sotto voce bit of information just at the moment it is needed without distracting the reader from the main point. If the parenthetical portion is a part of the sentence, you don’t need any punctuation before it to indicate that there is about to be an interruption; the parentheses do that for you.
The florist will deliver them (all tulips this time) on Friday.
Where to put the end punctuation is dictated by whether the parenthetical section is a part of the sentence or is a complete sentence that is parenthetical. If within the sentence, the punctuation mark comes after the closing parenthesis.
I hope they arrive on time this year (for a change).
Is the meeting still on (I hope)?
If the entire thought is parenthetical, then the punctuation comes inside.
(There’s that guy I want you to meet. Look happy.)
If the text inside the parentheses is a complete sentence, don’t capitalize the first word (unless it’s a proper noun, of course) and don’t use end punctuation unless it is different from the punctuation that ends the sentence.
Should I take the Main Street exit (I’ve not done that before)?
Take the Main Street exit (isn’t that what Jim said?).
Brackets are necessary if you interrupt your interruption. They indicate that the reader is still within the parentheses but there is a further interruption.
He said you looked different (from what I can’t imagine
[his ex, maybe?]).
All clear (I hope)?
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com