What's the general approach to using parenthesis (the grammatical construct, not the punctuation mark) in fiction?

I have an internal "ranking" of them:

  • Comma-delineated parenthesis, like this, is the most natural and normally suffices.
  • Em-dash-delineated parenthesis - like this - is more abrupt, but still acceptable in a story.
  • Bracket-delineated parenthesis (like this) is too abrupt (or perhaps too formal) to be used in narrative writing.

That's basically what feels natural to me when I'm writing. However, I've received critiques where people have said that I shouldn't use em-dashes for parenthesis, and upon consideration, I haven't actually seen many authors use it, at least not as often as I do. Is there any kind of standard for this?

  • 1
    What you mean is "parenthetical," or "aside," not "parentheses." That's part of your problem. Your question is valid, but you're wording it incorrectly. Jun 5, 2014 at 14:38
  • 2
    No, OP is using it correctly. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenthesis_(rhetoric) Jun 5, 2014 at 23:25
  • 1
    @RussellBorogove I've never heard that word used that way, but obviously people do. However, I maintain that using "parenthesis" for the punctuation and "parenthetical phrase" for the aside is useful for clarity in this discussion. Jun 6, 2014 at 13:01

4 Answers 4


To me, brackets imply some kind of meta comment: a thought or remark that does not reside on the same level as the rest of the text and is therefore taken out of it:

Commas (don't confuse them with colons!) look like little Nines.

In fiction there is no meta level, where you, the author, speak to the reader. The narrator may address the reader, but this is still a fictional construct, a literary device, and takes place on the level of the narration. The author himself can only speak in a preface or afterword, or elsewhere outside the text of the novel.

Commas are just syntactic devices integrating adjunct clauses from the end of a sentence into its middle:

The ladder collapsed because it was old.
The ladder, because it was old, collapsed.

Dashes signify a break in the text and insert content from outside the chronological or argumentative order of the narration, e.g. a bit of backstory:

John — he was the oldest of Paul's three sons — did not hesitate to ...

You can convey the same information with commas:

John, the oldest of Paul's three sons, did not hesitate to ...

The difference, to me, is that with commas you just quickly provide the information while your story keeps running, while the dashes pause the story and take the reader for a short trip to another story, in this case the story of John's childhood. And even if the inserted clause only hints at that childhood, as in the preceding example, the dashes draw the reader's attention to this bit of information and signify its importance. You can, of course, provide more detail:

John — he was the oldest of Paul's three sons and had been beaten severely by his drunken father — did not hesitate to ...

That detour can be as long as you want, and you may repeat relevant parts of your surrounding sentence after the insertion:

John — he was the oldest of Paul's three sons and had been beaten severely whenever his father caught him gazing at his sister taking a shower through the bathroom keyhole —, John did not hesitate to ...

  • 2
    "You may repeat relevant parts of your surrounding sentence after the insertion." Well, yes, if your entire narrative voice is like that, or if you're using a first-person voice from a narrator who doesn't care about grammar. It is not grammatically correct to repeat "John" in that last example, because if you were to take out the parenthetical, it would read "John John did not hesitate to..." If it's a deliberate stylistic choice used everywhere, it's fine. If it's not used everywhere consistently, don't do it. Jun 5, 2014 at 15:14
  • Which is why I inserted a comma after the dash, which your edit – made while I was working on my edit – deleted ;-) The result would be: "John, John did not hesitate ...", which may be bad style, but is grammatically correct. But you are right that the overall narrative style has to be compatible.
    – user5645
    Jun 5, 2014 at 15:26
  • 1
    Personally, I think the dash-comma construction works just fine there. As a reader, at least. I can't say I'm up on formal grammar rules, but it scans.
    – Stackstuck
    May 3, 2019 at 22:10
  • Parentheses in narration feel like the sort of thing you would find in Pratchett, but I believe he mostly used footnotes for that purpose.
    – Kevin
    Sep 28, 2019 at 22:14

To my mind, it's a matter of how "big a break" you want.

Commas are a small break. Dashes are a bigger break. And parentheses are a bigger break yet. (When I say "parentheses" in this post, I mean the punctuation mark. Personally I use the phrase "parenthetical statement" or "parenthetical remark" to refer to the words themselves.)

If you use parentheses a lot it can be very distracting. It makes the narrative seem choppy. Dashes are less imposing -- you can use them much more before they get distracting. You can use commas a great, great deal before people find them distracting.

I generally avoid using parentheses in dialog because it's not clear how the reader is supposed to read it. In my mind I picture a lower or more casual tone of voice. But it's ambiguous.

I've seen many writers use dashes for parenthetical remarks. I'm sure there are English teachers and grammar Nazis who say it's wrong, but I think it's pretty common these days, most people accept it, and it is readily understood.

Besides that, I'd just say: whatever you do, don't overdo it. If every sentence you write as parentheses in it, you want to rethink that.

  • 1
    Hmm. There are two types of "size" to a break: the disruption size (where parentheses/brackets are least disruptive, commas next, finally dashes, parentheses are soft) and the conceptual size (where parentheses often represent the largest separation, e.g., tangential comments). In dialog, parentheses could be used to indicate sotto voce, e.g., "I didn't go out with her (not that I'd tell you if I did)" is relatively unambiguous. Yet ambiguity is an issue. There is also a length factor. '()' can contain a paragraph, '—' multiple clauses, ',' is more limited.
    – user5232
    Jun 5, 2014 at 21:47

Comma, dash, and brackets are not simply different degrees of parenthesis, they are different types of parenthesis.

Comma parentheses denote modification or clarification of the main point.

His father, John, was a clergyman.

Brackets denote secondary non-essential information.

His father, John, (who also came from Nebraska) was a clergyman.

Dashes denote an interjection. The information matters, but it comes in from left field, so to speak, and can be grammatically disjointed from the rest of the sentence.

His father -- to this day he cannot remember his name -- was a clergyman.

Dashes allow you to shove one sentence into the middle of another one -- you can't do that with commas or brackets -- which is something people sometimes do in speech.

You can generally rewrite with the interjecting sentence following the first sentence. However, using the interjection give a certain vigor to the prose and allows you to put the emphasis where you want it.

As far as their use in fiction is concerned. These different kinds of parentheticals may occur more or less frequently in different styles of writing, but no grammatical structure, no form or punctuation, no part of speech should be ruled out. Use them where the effect they produce is appropriate, regardless of genre.

  • +1, should the comma in the second sentence after "John" occur there, or after the parenthetical?
    – Amadeus
    Sep 27, 2019 at 13:56
  • @Amadeus There, since it is his father who came from Nebraska. His being named John is orthogonal to his being from Nebraska, so they are independent parentheticals. Note that you could omit either parenthetical independently and the sentence would still work.
    – user16226
    Sep 27, 2019 at 14:00

I came to this article for help on this myself, (as a new writer), but I figured I might as well post. Parentheses I generally use in a non-fiction context. I used to never use them at all, but then somebody challenged me to use them. I still find them generally not useful in a fiction context, but I do use them sometimes. Normally only when a character is thinking something, (i.e looking back on a situation or running through a current one in their head), or I'm describing something in the text and want to add something else in there that isn't really essential to the text and would break up the scene too much otherwise. It is a break in the text, generally an asside in the narrators mind. I don't use them in dialouge, because it really doesn't add anything too it, it just breaks up the dialouge.I'm also unsure about how someone speaking in parentheses would actually sound, where as in their mind it could be imagined as different.

As for dashes, I only use them when a character cuts another character off, for example "Kathryn yelled, 'That's not fair, I-' 'Go to your room.' Her Dad interrupted.'" That's what I use it for, but I've seen others use it in place of parentheses.

Commas I use all the time! They're essential to grammer if you want to write long sentences, (as I do), and can even be used before and after parentheses. I also put words aside with commas that are an aside and are giving more information in a place where parentheses wouldn't work well. I agree with others' answers in that commas can be used alot before they get redundant and are really noticed. Parentheses are definately more noticable, and commas oftentimes work just as well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.