Parenthetically Speaking

by Cherie Tucker

December 2013

The worst mistake you can make involving parentheses is to leave off the last one so that readers don't know when to stop whispering. Parentheses serve to interrupt the sentence or the paragraph to add something sotto voce to what you are writing, which can be as simple as one word to add clarification or a whole sentence. However, because you are interrupting with those parentheses, there are a few rules to consider.

First of all, do not put any other punctuation before the opening parenthesis. That little curve announces the interruption; you don't need to interrupt with a comma or a dash to tell the reader you are about to interrupt.

No: Did you tell him what time to be here, (2:30)?

Yes: Did you tell him what time to be here (2:30)?

Do not capitalize the first word in a parenthetical item unless it is a proper noun, even if the parenthetical item is a complete sentence.

No: I'll bet he is late again (He's never on time).

Yes: I'll bet he is late again (he's never on time).

And don't put a period before the end parenthesis (unless the word is an abbreviation).

No: Bill saw that new movie and raved (I missed it.).

Yes: Bill saw that new movie and raved (I missed it).

OK: They said it wouldn't open until much later (about 6:30 p.m.).

The end punctuation goes outside the final parenthesis (see the previous sentence-as well as this one). That goes for exclamation points and question marks as well, unless the parenthetical item is itself a question, for example, and the sentence ends with different punctuation.

We all wished we could get a ticket for that show (who wouldn't?).

If you want to shout instead of whisper, use a dash instead of parentheses, but dashes have rules too. (We'll get to those later.).

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.

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