I would like to hear opinions about the use of parentheses around a word or part of a word to allow for more than one reading of a sentence.

I see this quite often in scientific English written by non-native researchers, mostly from Germanic Europe, although not exclusively.


(1) We argue that one should distinguish between ‘deontic’ and ‘directive’ uses of the(se) modals, (...)

(2) she has worked on various (un(der)described) languages

(3) the nature of deontic modality and its status relative to other qualificational (modal) categories

(4) All (inter)national students are welcome at this lecture about Belgium, where you will learn more about your (host) country.

The parentheses in these examples allow for multiple readings. For instance, example (2) has at least four possible felicitous readings and a fifth that is infelicitous:

  • she has worked on various languages
  • she has worked on various described languages
  • she has worked on various undescribed languages
  • she has worked on various underdescribed languages
  • *she has worked on various der languages

I argue that even though this use of parentheses is convenient for the writer, it makes for fuzzy writing. The ideas may come as vague or ambiguous. Additionally, the reading experience is less smooth since the reader is tasked with putting together a set of possible interpretations of the sentence and with deciding which of them apply and which don't. Moreover, if this strategy is used more than once in one sentence (4), the reader must decide which of the possible interpretations of each instance combine together.

Pros and cons of this strategy:


  • Allows for economic writing because the writer can say more with less words.
  • Allows for the abbreviated expression of otherwise lengthy commonplace terms like intersubjectivity/subjectivity as (inter)subjectivity that may be repeated numerous times in one text.


  • The relationship between the different readings is unclear. Are they mutually exclusive? In other words, is it and or or?

  • The reader is tasked with deciding on the appropriate reading of the sentence. For example, should the sentence be read multiple times, one for each possible interpretation?

  • Parentheses may enclose clusters of letters that are meaningless, such as se and der.

  • Defeats the purpose of parentheses, which is to convey parenthetical information. The information enclosed in the parentheses in theses cases isn't parenthetical, but essential.

  • 2
    As a native English speaker, I would never use parentheses in a word. I didn't even know that was a thing, and some of those examples make me cringe trying to read them
    – Artsoccer
    Feb 18, 2020 at 17:29
  • 1
    The wording of your question invites answers that are primarily opinion(ated), which is grounds for closure. Can you edit it so that you invite fact-based responses instead? For example: "in which kinds of writing would it be (in)appropriate to use parenthetical insertions?" For further guidance, see How to Ask and take the Writing Tour. :-) Feb 20, 2020 at 2:53

3 Answers 3


I find that there is often a sense of ironic humor in such parenthetical writing. When I read it, it feels like #hashTagHumor [#sometimesObscure #millennialParadise].

The author is trying to compress two or more related but very different views into the same words.

BTW, as an example of how parenthetical writing is bad, I disagree with your second reading of: "she has worked on various described languages." As I interpret the writing, "un" and "described" are at the same parenthesis level, and must come or go together.


It depends on why you’re doing it. If you’re writing this in ordinary text in a novel, then yeah, that’s fuzzy. But if you’re writing a legal document or quoting a legal document in your novel then it can be ok.


I think using parentheses a lot in certain types of stories is a bad idea. For example, if it's a story like Lightning Thief, where there is a clear beginning, middle, end, climax, and stuff like that, too much parentheses would ruin the flow of the story. You can't get too invested in a story if there are constantly something like this happening;

She was bleeding in many places. She wailed in pain, and cried for help (She didn't see me at that point) It shocked me to my core to see her like that.

It's hard to get sucked into the story when that happens too often.

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