Confused about parentheses and brackets? Here’s help

Parentheses and brackets set off portions of text from the whole for
various purposes.

Parentheses, appearing almost exclusively in pairs, are usually employed in
the same manner as a pair of commas or dashes, though they suggest
de-emphasis of the content within (as opposed to commas, which convey a
neutral insertion of information, and dashes, which highlight the text
between them).

Parentheses, in addition to being employed to interject examples or a brief
digression, enclose an abbreviation, acronym or initialism; a translation;
or a numerical equivalent of a spelled-out number.

They also can set off a cross-reference, as in: “For more details, read the
associated case study (pages 113–119)” or “Gene therapy is discussed
briefly here. (See chapter 12 for more information.)”

Parentheses might frame a plural ending to indicate that a word can be read
as either singular or plural, as in “Enter the title(s) of the document(s)
on the asset list,” or to allow for a gender-neutral reading, as in “Next,
(s)he should consult with an adviser.”

Note that one of a pair of parentheses is called a parenthesis. This term
also pertains in general to setting text off from other text regardless of
which punctuation signals the separation. (Two or more instances of
parenthesis might be referred to as parentheses.) Text that is set off by
complementary punctuation marks is sometimes referred to as a parenthetical
phrase, or simply a parenthetical.

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A single close parenthesis is sometimes used in place of a period when
enumerating, as in “The three of rock are 1) igneous, 2) metamorphic
and 3) sedimentary.” (The open parenthesis is not used in isolation.)

A few more guidelines about parentheses follow:

  • Parentheses should not be used in immediate proximity to each other or
    within another set of parentheses; in the latter case, use brackets (or
    commas or dashes) instead.
  • Avoid including more than one sentence, or including an extensive
    sentence, within parentheses.
  • Avoid situating a complete sentence in parentheses within another
    sentence.
  • Avoid using parentheses too frequently. Consider employing commas or
    dashes instead, or otherwise revising text so that parentheses do not
    appear repeatedly in one piece of content.
  • Parentheses framing text in italics, boldface or another style treatment
    differing from the default text should not that formatting, but
    should rather be in the same font as the surrounding text.

A complete sentence within parentheses should end with a period or other
terminal punctuation before the close parenthesis, and the preceding text
should be followed by terminal punctuation:


“. . . then it is fair game. (There are always exceptions, of course.)”

If text enclosed in parentheses does not comprise a complete sentence and
ends a framing sentence, the terminal punctuation of the framing sentence
should immediately follow the close parenthesis.

“. . . then it is fair game (with exceptions).”

Text in parentheses in the midst of a sentence is not punctuated,
regardless of whether it is a complete sentence (unless the terminal
punctuation is a question mark or an exclamation point), and the first word
of a complete sentence in parentheses is not capitalized:


“. . . then (there are always exceptions, of course) it is fair game.”

“. . . then (with exceptions) it is fair game.”

Brackets, in American English, refer to square brackets. (In British
English, the term pertains to round brackets, or what in American English
are called parentheses.) Brackets have limited uses, including:

  • adding contextual information within quoted material “She spoke to
    [Smith],” where the bracketed text replaces one or more spoken words to
    provide clarity (in this example, replacing the vague him) or
    to add a word or phrase omitted in the spoken or written quotation.
    Sometimes, the replaced word or phrase is retained, as in “She spoke to
    him [Smith],” but this is unnecessary.
  • when framing the word sic (“thus”), borrowed from Latin,
    confirming that in quoted material, an error or confusing wording is
    faithfully reproduced from the original text and not a transcription
    error, as in “The comment read, ‘You are definately [sic] out
    of your mind.’” (Note that sic is italicized, but the brackets
    are not.)
  • parenthesizing within parentheses, as in “Submit form 13F (Petition for
    Appeal [formerly titled Petition for Grievance]) within thirty days.”
    (When possible, revise sentences to avoid this type of construction.)
  • clarifying, in formal writing, that the first letter of quoted material
    is, the source material, in a different case, as in “[A]s you would
    have others do unto you” is the gist of the admonition,” where the
    quoted material is the second half of the original statement and, thus, as is lowercase in the source text.
  • framing ellipses to indicate that a word or phrase has been omitted,
    although generally, the ellipses on their own are sufficient.
  • modifying a quotation, perhaps for grammatical agreement, when
    partially paraphrasing, as when “I agree with his account of the
    incident, as improbable as it sounds,” is reported, “He said that he
    ‘agrees[s] with his account of the incident, as improbable as it
    sounds.’”

Parentheses and brackets both have distinct functions in computing,
linguistics, math and science contexts that are not described here. In
addition, similar symbols include curly brackets {/} and angle brackets,
which have specialized uses not discussed in this post.

A version of this post first appeared on

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