Parentheses: How to Use ( ) Correctly

by Liz Bureman | 49 comments

People ask me all the time (and by all the time, I mean never), “Liz, what is your favorite grammatical/punctuational structure?” It's hard to narrow it down to just one (although you're probably already aware of my love for the Oxford comma), but if I happened to be in a life-or-death of language situation, it would probably be parentheses, or to be more specific, the parenthetical statement.

Parentheses: How to Use () Correctly

I bet you already figured that out.

What Are Parenthetical Statements?

Parenthetical statements give additional information or explanation. They are like softer em dashes.

A parenthesis is like a close friend quietly whispering in your ear, but an em dash is more like your high school graduating class arriving drunk on your doorstep and announcing that you are hosting this year's reunion, and it's happening right now. Notice the difference:

Angela exhaled quietly (she didn't want Frank to hear anything) and felt her way along the wall to the door.

Angela exhaled quietly—she didn't want Frank to hear anything—and felt her way along the wall to the door.

In the second sentence, the fact that Angela doesn't want Frank to hear anything has the same importance as her movement towards the door. If that's your goal, then em dashes are what you're looking for.

If you're primarily focused on Angela's progression towards the door, then use parentheses.

You can also use a parenthetical statement to give your reader information without adding emphasis to the aside:

Kevin yawned (he'd only had four hours of sleep) and stretched out on the floor at his sister's feet.

The parentheses allow your audience to continue reading through the paragraph without stopping and acknowledging that, oh, Kevin's lack of sleep is something that I need to pay attention to. Instead, they know that the action isn't leaving them behind.

The Perils of Punctuating Parentheticals

ParenthesesThis is all well and good, but let's talk about the things that really trip people up: using parentheses and other punctuation. Does the period go inside or outside the parentheses? How about the comma? Let's clear up this confusion once and for all.

If the part in parentheses is inside a sentence, the punctuation goes outside the parentheses:

Sally felt queasy (maybe eating six cupcakes was a bad idea).

If the part in parentheses is a complete sentence but not within another sentence, the punctuation goes inside the parentheses:

Henry tracked mud across the floor as he came in from the rain. (Sorry, Mom.)

When the part in parentheses is several sentences long, or if it uses special punctuation, like a question mark or exclamation point, the punctuation goes inside the parentheses:

Mark doubted it would rain today (but for the garden's sake, he hoped it would!).

Emily looked forward to coloring at her grandmother's house this afternoon (although she didn't want to use crayons. Did her grandmother have markers? She wasn't sure).

Note in the second example that there is no period within the parentheses after “She wasn't sure.” If the final sentence within the parentheses would use a period, there's no extra punctuation—the period goes outside the parentheses.

Although it's possible to cram whole paragraphs into parentheses, it's generally a bad idea. For best effect, use parenthetical statements sparingly, for small asides. Don't overwhelm your readers with them!

A Note On Parentheses in Academic Writing

We've talked mostly about how parentheses show up in every day writing. In formal academic writing, parentheses can be used within the paper to explain or qualify information, but you're more likely to see them used as reference tools at the end of sentences.

These are called parenthetical citations, and they have their own specific guidelines that you will want to look up in the style guide assigned.

For example, the MLA style guide (used mostly for the humanities) uses parenthetical citations, AKA in-text citations, and a works cited page to tell readers where source information came from. At the end of a sentence with source information, writers will use the author's last name and the page number inside parentheses to indicate which source from the works cited was used.

Go Use Parentheticals (You Can Do It!)

Do you feel prepared to use parenthetical statements? (It's okay if you don't; it just takes practice.) Try using them in your writing, and keep an eye out for the ways other writers have used them.

Who knows? Maybe you'll find you love them as much as I do (and that's a lot of love!).

Are parentheticals important in your writing? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes on the following prompt. Use parenthetical statements to enhance your story, and be careful to punctuate them correctly. For extra practice, change your parenthetical statements into em dash asides when you're done, and take note of how the tone of the story changes.

Prompt: Victor leaned forward in his chair and looked at Kayla, who was tracing the rim of her mug with her fingers.

Share your writing in the practice box below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

49 Comments

  1. Jonathan

    Maybe I’m mis-remembering Ms Galloway’s 9th grade English (it was 24 years ago, but she was my 9th grade teacher) but isn’t there also a parenthetical expression, set apart by commas rather than emm dashes or parenthesis, that can be used? What are your feelings on that one?

    And for the record, I’m decidedly in your boat on the Oxford comma.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Jonathan,

      Liz is moving to Denver as we speak but she sent me this to send to you:

      It depends how the comma phrase is used. It wouldn’t work in a sentence like this:

      Cassie rolled her eyes (Kyle was always saying things that warranted it) and shoved her shoulder into the door.

      You have to use parentheses or em dashes. If you used commas instead, that would be comma splicing, cardinal sin numero uno. Commas would work in a sentence like this:

      Mark dug through his mother’s purse for the car keys, since she always left them in there, and raced out the door.

      There’s a transitional word there (since), so no splice. Parentheses work here too; em dashes less so just because of the emphasis.

    • Jonathan

      I tried to use a parenthetical expression with commas and the first one didn’t work. It seems to me that none of my English classes taught about parentheses or emm dashes at all in high school or college. Maybe it was just the classes I took.

    • Ryan J Riehl

      I don’t remember learning any of this in school either. I feel like I picked a lot up beacuse I was a big reader as a kid.

    • Joe Bunting

      I think that’s how most people learn. I was just talking to a friend of the family from Jamaica who was taught to write under the British school system. They do it much better in this arena. Most people don’t learn to write in school, they just learn good structure (the verb goes here, the noun here, the adverb… yada yada). Careful reading teaches you to write better than anything.

    • MahI

      Victor leaned forward in his chair and looked at Kayla, who was tracing the rim of her mug with her fingers(she was completely lost in her thoughts).
      Victor suddenly called out her name and on hearing that she jumped up in her chair throwing mug on the floor (for a moment she didn’t get what has happened, but later, with time as she came back to her senses) and she noticed that Victor is watching her very closely, she tucked her hair behind her ear (still feeling his gaze on her) and smiled at him .Victor asked,”What happened Kayla? Are you alright?”.(To him this was quite unusual, he had never seen her like that before).

  2. Jonathan

    Maybe I’m mis-remembering Ms Galloway’s 9th grade English (it was 24 years ago, but she was my 9th grade teacher) but isn’t there also a parenthetical expression, set apart by commas rather than emm dashes or parenthesis, that can be used? What are your feelings on that one?

    And for the record, I’m decidedly in your boat on the Oxford comma.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Jonathan,

      Liz is moving to Denver as we speak but she sent me this to send to you:

      It depends how the comma phrase is used. It wouldn’t work in a sentence like this:

      Cassie rolled her eyes (Kyle was always saying things that warranted it) and shoved her shoulder into the door.

      You have to use parentheses or em dashes. If you used commas instead, that would be comma splicing, cardinal sin numero uno. Commas would work in a sentence like this:

      Mark dug through his mother’s purse for the car keys, since she always left them in there, and raced out the door.

      There’s a transitional word there (since), so no splice. Parentheses work here too; em dashes less so just because of the emphasis.

    • Jonathan

      I tried to use a parenthetical expression with commas and the first one didn’t work. It seems to me that none of my English classes taught about parentheses or emm dashes at all in high school or college. Maybe it was just the classes I took.

    • Ryan J Riehl

      I don’t remember learning any of this in school either. I feel like I picked a lot up beacuse I was a big reader as a kid.

    • Joe Bunting

      I think that’s how most people learn. I was just talking to a friend of the family from Jamaica who was taught to write under the British school system. They do it much better in this arena. Most people don’t learn to write in school, they just learn good structure (the verb goes here, the noun here, the adverb… yada yada). Careful reading teaches you to write better than anything.

  3. Ryan J Riehl

    “Well, what do you think?” he said.
    Letting out a sigh (but not looking up), Kayla said, “I don’t know. You seem so sure, but I’m not.”
    Victor leaned back in his chair. Why wouldn’t she agree. He collected his thoughts to try again (he’d only wanted this for years). Kayla watched him (she knew what he was thinking). “What’s the big deal anyway,” she said before she could stop herself.
    That gave Victor pause. “Doesn’t she know,” he thought. He stared at her (it had been many long seconds since he said anything), as more thoughts raced through his mind. With a glance, she knew everything he wasn’t saying. Victor got up and walked away. Kayla continued to sit (still tracing the rim of her mug).

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Mmm… very subtle. I love the tension, Ryan.

      Watch out for head hopping (which is when you switch perspectives midscene). You have to be in either Kayla’s head or Victor’s. Writing inner monologue / emotion from both in the same scene is a no no. I’m not sure if you technically do that in this scene, but you’re close.

      It’s very good though.

      “Kayla continued to sit (still tracing the rim of her mug).” Great image.

    • Ryan J Riehl

      Thanks! I was going for tension.

      I think I have trouble with head hopping when I’m just talking with people. I’ll have to work on better clarity and organization for this kind of situation.

    • Joe Bunting

      For sure.

  4. Ryan J Riehl

    “Well, what do you think?” he said.
    Letting out a sigh (but not looking up), Kayla said, “I don’t know. You seem so sure, but I’m not.”
    Victor leaned back in his chair. Why wouldn’t she agree. He collected his thoughts to try again (he’d only wanted this for years). Kayla watched him (she knew what he was thinking). “What’s the big deal anyway,” she said before she could stop herself.
    That gave Victor pause. “Doesn’t she know,” he thought. He stared at her (it had been many long seconds since he said anything), as more thoughts raced through his mind. With a glance, she knew everything he wasn’t saying. Victor got up and walked away. Kayla continued to sit (still tracing the rim of her mug).

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Mmm… very subtle. I love the tension, Ryan.

      Watch out for head hopping (which is when you switch perspectives midscene). You have to be in either Kayla’s head or Victor’s. Writing inner monologue / emotion from both in the same scene is a no no. I’m not sure if you technically do that in this scene, but you’re close.

      It’s very good though.

      “Kayla continued to sit (still tracing the rim of her mug).” Great image.

    • Ryan J Riehl

      Thanks! I was going for tension.

      I think I have trouble with head hopping when I’m just talking with people. I’ll have to work on better clarity and organization for this kind of situation.

    • Joe Bunting

      For sure.

  5. Will

    Victor leaned forward in his chair and looked at Kayla, who was tracing the rim of her mug with her fingers.

    (Kayla always traced something with her fingers when she was under pressure. Or drunk. Victor knew something was up.)

    “Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.

    “No,” said Kayla timidly. (This was, victor thought, unusual, since Kayla was never timid.)

    “I haven’t seen you eat a thing today,” he said.

    “I ate,” said Kayla. “You just weren’t there. I had a huge lunch while you were at work.”

    (Victor tried to make eye contact with her. No success.)

    Victor decided to play nice. “Okay,” he said, “You had a huge lunch, and you’re not in the mood for cookies. Sure. Just remember,” he added (much more slowly and quietly), “to not eat such a – huge lunch next time.”

    (There was never a “next time”. This had been going on for longer than victor could remember.)

    Kayla huffed and continued to trace the rim of her mug of tea. She still hadn’t taken a single sip.

    “Would you like some sugar?” asked Victor. (He hoped he sounded innocent.)

    Kayla licked her lips (they were chapped). “Do you have lemon?”

    “Going British, eh? Do I have lemon, yes I do have lemon,” said victor through clenched teeth.

    He turned his back on her, and felt like Kayla had shrunk even more into herself throughout his long silence.

    When he gave Kayla the lemon, she cut off only a quarter, and squeezed the juice into her mug. Just seeing the fruit made Victor shudder. (He and Kayla had always hated lemons, they couldn’t stand the sheer acidness. But now everything was changed, and Kayla drained life’s lemons to their stones for tea.)

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      I am impressed with your ability to take a scene about having a cup of tea (something I could never make interesting) and infusing it with tension and drama, creating a story out of it.

  6. Lele Lele

    Victor leaned forward in his chair and looked at Kayla, who was tracing the rim of her mug with her fingers.

    He opened his mouth. Then he closed it and sat back down.

    She looked up from her mug(her hand not leaving the rim) and she titled her head.

    He scratched the back of his head and looked away. “You think they’d let it through,” he said. “The construction plans, I mean.”

    She looked up and her eyes scanned the ceiling. A plastic fan spun above them. “I don’t know,” she said. “They’d have to, right?”

    “That’s not very convincing.”

    She clenched her fingers around the rim(her nails scratched the inner ring). “I’m sorry,” she said. “The environmental groups are getting erratic.”

    His eyes followed the way her fingers traced the pattern on the bottom of the mug. Then he turned to her face. “Those environ hippies are always ‘erratic’.”

    She shrugged. She lifted the empty mug and sniffed it. “They’re just concerned-”

    “Those tree-humpers and their animals rights ilk, all they do is whine and make excuses,” he said almost standing up. “Worse, they’d disrupt good honest businesmen.”

    She snorted. She smiled at the rim of her mug.

    “Hey,” He backed down in his seat and exhaled a deep breath. “What’s with the mug anyways.”

    Her smile got directed at him. It was radiant smile.

    “It’s a gift,” she said.

    She wasn’t touching the rim anymore and she was looking away. On it her initials was scratched.: K L.

    He blinked. “Oh.”

    “I never liked ceramics that much,” she said. “This one; draws me in, I don’t know.” She smiled again.

    A sad smile appeared on his face. “You’re married.”

    Her smile dropped. “Were married.”

    “Sorry,” he said.

    “Yeah,” she said(she gripped the mug again). “My former husband never liked our business meetings too much. Said it was a mistake to get me through business school.” She traced the rim of her mug with her fingers. “I said to him: Can’t you see my mad business skills. And you just have to live with that.”

    “Jury’s still out on that one.” He leaned forward and smiled.

    She laughed(letting go of the mug) and he laughed as well.

    Reply
  7. GKMoberg

    I prefer not to use parenthesis. To use them in a draft is okay. But by the time something is submitted I edit them out. Okay, perhaps the occassional usage but otherwise avoid them. (Why yes, officer, I never drink & drive. Of course! Never. Well except for this one time and this one martini.) I avoid the clutter they introduce.

    I was given the advice that the use of parenthesis most often is a flag , as a Writer, that the section needs more work. The parenthesis or even the em dashes are a signal that you (the Writer) are moving too quickly and need to revise. As in: go back and revise so that the dialog or narration draws out the point or points being made.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      That’s a good philosophy, to see parentheticals as flags for sections that need more work. You’re right that in general, it’s best to avoid them unless you have a clear reason to use them. For example, the occasional parenthetical comment can create a conversational tone in a casual piece of writing (like this blog post and comment!). It’s easy to overuse them, though, and in many kinds of writing, maybe even most, it’s probably best to avoid them entirely.

    • MICHAEL HOTCHKISS

      Thanks Alice (really!).

  8. MICHAEL HOTCHKISS

    I have a punctuation question. In this example, “Mark doubted it would rain today (but for the garden’s sake, he hoped it would!).” There is an exclamation point inside the parenthesis and a period outside to end the sentence. What if the parenthetical portion used a period – would it be correct to use two periods? “Mark doubted it would rain today (but for the garden’s sake, he hoped it would.).” Something tells me no.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      You’re right! If the parenthetical portion used a period, there would not be two periods, just the one outside the parentheses.

    • MICHAEL HOTCHKISS

      Why is it OK with an exclamation point? Is this just another English anomaly?

    • Bruce Carroll

      I was taught to never use an exclamation point within parentheses. The reasoning was that parentheses de-emphasize information and and exclamation point emphasizes it. “If a sentence requires an exclamation point,” I was told, “it is too important to put inside parentheses.”

    • Alice Sudlow

      I’d flip your question around and say it’s NOT okay to use two periods. The period after the entire sentence also rounds out the thought in the parentheses, making a second period redundant.

      In that sense, it IS okay to use an exclamation point or a question mark inside the parentheses because that’s a sentiment that won’t be conveyed by the period outside them.

      Susan’s coat was warm (was it wool?). Without the question mark inside the parentheses, “was it wool” wouldn’t make sense.

      The same goes for exclamation points:

      Bill wondered whether his grandparents had arrived yet (he hoped they had!). Without that exclamation point inside the parentheses, you’d lose the sense of the comment.

      That said, I’d say Bruce has it right when he says if something needs an exclamation point, that’s a good sign it shouldn’t be in parentheses at all. It’s easy to overuse parentheses, which becomes distracting and confusing for the reader. Use them with care!

    • Coleen

      I was told to use exclamation points sparingly. Using exclamation points (whether inside parenthesis or not), should be kept to a minimum. Exclamation points should only be used when a sentence has to show extreme emphasis. I do have a question about using ellipsis inside parenthesis though…

  9. Bruce Carroll

    Victor leaned forward in his chair and looked at Kayla, who was tracing the rim of her mug with her fingers.

    “Kinda gross,” Victor said.

    “What is?”

    “Fingering your mug like that. It’s sort of like sucking your thumb.”

    (I sat back and reread what I had just typed. This wasn’t a scene. This was just terribly forced dialogue without anything resembling substance, character, or conflict.)

    Kayla looked over her mug at him. “You’re just mad that my mother is coming to live with us.”

    (Better for conflict, but not much of a scene. I never had a knack for these domestic scenes, anyway. Maybe a different approach….)

    Kayla leaned forward in her chair and looked at Victor, who was tracing the pistol in his lap with his fingers.

    (Is the conflict a bit too obvious? Sigh.)

    Bruce sat at his computer and stared at the screen. He stared and stared, but no words magically appeared.

    (Okay, that one at least rings true. It has conflict, but the whole writer’s block thing has been done before. Overdone, if you ask me.)

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      I love this use of parentheses! You’re basically integrating two scenes into one, using parentheses to differentiate between the two. And I thoroughly enjoyed that little behind-the-scenes look into the process of writing the piece. Thanks for sharing!

    • Bruce Carroll

      Thanks, Alice. I absolutely hated this piece until I read your kind words. You’ve made me see it in a new light.

  10. Jason Bougger

    I use parenthesis far to often when I blog (or comment on other blogs) 🙂

    When it comes to fiction, I try to avoid them as much as possible, mostly because I don’t trust myself to use them properly. This post should help with that a bit. I’ll have to keep it for a reference point.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Ha, parentheses are easy to rely on, especially in less formal writing, like blogs and comments! I’d say you’re probably safer steering clear of them in fiction, though. Sprinkling in a couple here and there can communicate a point just the way you want it, as long as they’re used correctly. Too many, though, and you’ll be distracting your readers right when you want them to be immersed and engaged.

  11. Andressa Andrade

    Question! Is it ok to use both em dashes (I just discovered that name, thanks!) AND parentheses in the same piece of writing, or do you think it is better to use only one of them for the sake of consistency? When I was in high school, I had a teacher who said you should choose only one of them to use throughout your text (since they have kind of the same use). That idea has kind of stuck with me since then, but your post made me wonder if that is one “rule” I should just leave behind — like I’ve done with most “rules” my high school teachers have taught me, if I’m being honest.

    Reply
    • Alice Sudlow

      Hi Andressa! I haven’t heard of an official rule about using only em dashes or parentheses. I think you used both well in this comment—parentheses for softer asides, em dashes for firmer points. That said, I’d say the key for both is moderation. Overusing either will quickly become overwhelming and distracting for readers, and that danger is even greater if you’re constantly switching between them.

    • Andressa Andrade

      Hi, Alice! I see. I think you are right. I will keep that in mind from now on. Thank you for your kind reply! =)

  12. Alice Sudlow

    Oh no, I’m sorry to hear you’re more confused! Do you have any particular questions? I’m happy to help un-muddy the waters.

    Reply
    • TerriblyTerrific

      Thank you. I think I was confused about where to put the periods with the parenthesis.

  13. S.M. Sierra

    Hi Liz, I was wondering about dialog placed inside parentheses, for instance in my book my main character has a mind Melange with a Rukhorse, (an animal that only she can hear) so I chose to put their conversations in parentheses, so where would I place the period or other punctuation?
    An example: (Hurry up Molly) Ronda relays. Now do I place a comma after the parentheses like I would if it were dialog? Or a period? because if it were dialog I’d write “Hurry up, Molly,” Ronda says.

    Reply
  14. Colorless Green

    I always interpreted parenthetical statements as the sentence should be able to stand on its own as a complete thought if you yanked the parenthetical out. It’s a qualifier of the sentence its inside, but not necessary for the sentence to be complete.

    Reply
  15. Danny

    I could give you one thing in life i would give you only then everyone To Think want to be become a Writer why make A story about my life and other people

    Reply
  16. Evelyn Sinclair

    Victor leaned forward in his chair and looked at Kayla, who was tracing the rim of her mug with her fingers.(She had just returned from her class). She continued tracing the rim causing it to “ring”. The noise began to annoy Victor. ” You’re not a bloody Bhuddist.” he yelled. “Stop that stupid noise!” Kayla looked up slowly(and spoke gently). “Kevin, you are so stressed and angry with me. It doesn’t have to be like this between us. Maybe if you tried the meditation sessions as well, it might help you to be a bit calmer.” She was still tracing the rim of her mug. (It was bone china) She always found the clear ringing sound entrancing. She had discovered It was possible to create the same sound with a crystal glass or a small china bowl and a pestle. She began meditating on the variety of sound she was capable of producing – and Kevin (still angry with her), realizing he was not getting anywhere with her, stood up, stormed out of the room and banged the door as loudly as he could. Kayla continued with her tracing. Victor’s emotions were Victor’s responsibility she decided.

    Reply
  17. Victor Paul Scerri

    After reading the comments, I’ll save this page and use my parentheses sparingly. (Live and learn, is my motto.) “Hmm, did I get this right?”

    Reply
  18. Prince Ydnar Velonza

    Kahit anong mangyari, mamahalin kita.
    (Translation: Anything what happen, I’ll love you.)

    I’m just trying to use parenthesis. 🙂

    Reply
  19. Daisy

    Please explain why there isn’t a period after, She wasn’t sure).

    Reply

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