“We wrote one last night outside the mini mart. Morris called it ‘Stuart Drives A Comfortable Car,’ and then like in country songs, you know, in parentheses, it says, ‘There’s Usually Someone in the Trunk.’”–Vic Chestnutt, modern-day poet
This week, we explore the most common ways to use parentheses. I just spent two hours trying to find a funny quotation mentioning parentheses (and I ended up with something from Sling Blade instead), so let’s get started:
Writers most often use parentheses to add accompanying information to a sentence. As the Chicago Manual of Style explains, parentheses “usually set off material that is less closely related to the rest of the sentence than that enclosed in em dashes or commas.”
Within parentheses, you can provide a comment, aside, or clarification. This additional content should more or less serve as background information: if you omit the parenthetical text, it should not drastically change the meaning of the sentence.
Example: Honey Boo Boo’s mama is so ashamed of her “forklift foot” (it got squashed by a forklift in a warehouse, of course) that she gets pedicures with her socks on.
*Editor’s note: Seriously, though, why are gnats buzzing around it?!
Example: After decades of being wasted on underachievers like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, this year the Nobel Prize should honor a true scientific pioneer: the genius (or geniuses) who invented BBQ potato chips laced with stimulants.
You can also enlist parentheses to explain acronyms and initialism, especially when you will employ them later in your text.
Example: Following his ill-fated trip to the zoo, Albert Hansenpfeffer canceled the donation check he mailed to the International Elephant Foundation (IEF).
Parentheses commonly indicate dates, often to highlight an important event or list the years of an individual’s lifetime.
Example: Some critics believe Sinbad’s finest work came during his Late Period (1989–1996), culminating with his magnum opus, First Kid.