Punctuation Rules: Parentheses

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Punctuation can be tricky for native speakers (just look at all the social media images that mock punctuation errors!), so it’s no wonder that English language learners find punctuation rules elusive. September 24, 2014, is National Punctuation Day, so what better time to explain the usage of some common punctuation marks? This time last year, I blogged about the em dash and the en dash. We also have collections of punctuation blog posts in our 100 Days of Grammar (Punctuation section) and Apostrophe Roundup. This year, I thought I’d focus on parentheses! Read on to learn how you can easily teach this punctuation mark to your students.

What are parentheses?

Parentheses, also known as round brackets, are these symbols: ( ). Note that the singular is parenthesis and the plural is parentheses. The first parenthesis is sometimes called the openopening, or left parenthesis, and the second parenthesis can be called the end, closing, or right parenthesis.

Don’t confuse parentheses with these other punctuation marks:

[ ] square brackets
/ / angle brackets
{ } curly brackets or braces

How do you use parentheses correctly?

In English, parentheses are mainly used to set off extra, non-essential information (often taking the place of commas or em dashes). They are a good way to make simple sentences more complex, because they allow you to add an extra phrase or clause to the main sentence. Note that parentheses should not be overused. Try not to use them more than once or twice per paragraph.

  • My sister Bonnie (I call her Bon) was the first person I told.
  • The university offers two first-year criminology courses (Crim 101 and 102).

How do you punctuate parentheses?

If the parenthetical statement is a part of a main sentence, the punctuation mark (a period, comma, colon, semicolon, exclamation mark, or question mark) goes outside the end parenthesis. (Note that no mid-sentence punctuation is required if the sentence is short—see example #3.) However, it is possible to add an exclamation point or a question mark inside the end parenthesis if it is part of the parenthetical statement alone.

  • I love cheese (it doesn’t matter what kind).
  • She blushed (and she was quite beautiful when she did), but I was still too nervous to ask for her number.
  • Her dress (designed by Yves Saint Laurent) was beautiful.
  • He ordered the hamburger (or was it the cheeseburger?) for lunch.
  • Making mistakes with punctuation is common (I do it quite often myself!).

If the parenthetical statement is separate from the main sentence, include all end punctuation inside the end parenthesis. Separate parenthetical statements may be used when either the main sentence or the parenthetical statement is quite long, or when the parenthetical statement is a little less connected to the main sentence.

  •  Once the meeting was adjourned, the participants left quite quickly. (The office was closed shortly afterward.)
  • Never in my life did I expect to see such a turnout. (I was really pleased and surprised that so many people showed up to support me!)

How do you use square, angle, and curly brackets?

What if you want to add extra information to a clause that’s already inside parentheses? Here’s where square brackets [ ] come in.

  • I asked our boss about the meeting (he said to come to the meeting [in Room 222] with our reports) so that we could all be prepared.

Angle brackets / / and braces { } are not very common in writing. They are mainly used in mathematics and computer programming. For example, many URLs use angle brackets, and braces are used to show what should be contained in the same lines. Angle brackets are also used in the field of linguistics to show the phonological or phonetic sounds of a language.

I hope this post will help your students (and not make them too crazy)!


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