I find it easier to write many things with parentheses, but I don't know if this is considered good practice. I would expect some might say that parentheses are indicative of excessive digression and that the sentences would be clearer if restructured.

Is there general consensus on the extent to rely on parentheses (e.g. "sparingly", or the same as with starting sentences with conjunction)? Do parentheses generally make writing more or less clear?

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    Starting sentences with conjunctions is perfectly fine. The question "Do parentheses generally make writing any more or less clear?" is not constructive, as it amounts to an invitation to an open-ended subjective discussion. The question "Is there any general consensus" is better, but since "sparingly" would make for an acceptable answer to you, it's kind of pointless as well, as "sparingly" is in the eye of the beholder.
    – RegDwight
    May 12, 2012 at 7:20
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    Being more specific about the kind of writing you do would help, as would a sample of your writing where you feel you've overused parentheses. May 12, 2012 at 15:59

6 Answers 6


Do parentheses inhibit clarity? They do and they don't, it's all down to individual use. When used well and skillfully, parentheses fulfill a function that no other punctuation or construction can quite imitate. Their function is similar to em dashes (a woefully overused punctuation mark) and can also be used to mask off digressions (which can detract from the text).

Overuse and use to mask bad habits have given parentheses a bad rep. Long parenthetical statements that don't flow well are a misuse. If the sentence or paragraph doesn't flow when reading it (because of the parenthetical statements) then you're not using them right. Maybe parentheses are the wrong tool in a case like this.

However, just because parentheses are misused often doesn't mean there aren't good ways to employ them. I wrote a longer blog post about this very subject, but here's the money quote in the article that illustrates the central point:

[General Washington] had not done well farming despite all sorts of theories about river mud being the best of manures (it is not), and the invention of a plough (shades of Jefferson!) which proved to be so heavy that two horses could not budge it even in moist earth.

(Gore Vidal, Burr, 1973)

See how well that flows? Dashes would introduce awkward pauses into the writing, rephrasing it entirely would remove the narrator's great sense of self-importance. This novel's narrator is opinionated and talky, but the author cleverly turns his asides into parenthetical ejaculations of color that don't interfere with the flow of the language.

Parentheses can be a useful tool in situations where writing the sentence without them would make the sentence longer, a maze of twisty corridors, or perhaps just drain it of life. Those who learn to use parentheses well have access to a wonderful tool.


I like what Theodore Bernstein says in "The Careful Writer" (original copyright 1965):

There is some evidence that the use of parentheses has become more common in modern writing, particularly in critical and expository writing. Parentheses seem almost to have become a mark of "sophisticated," knowing style. They do have their uses in simplifying sentences that otherwise would be encumbered with ponderous subordinate and coordinate clauses and in permitting the use of pointed asides that might otherwise seem overemphatic. But, like every other stylistic device, they can be overdone.

Also, you should be able to lift out what is inside a set of parentheses and still have a grammatical, understandable sentence left behind. I personally think they are overused.

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    Bernstein's relatively longer explanation has no parentheses. Your first sentence has one.
    – Kris
    May 12, 2012 at 4:23
  • 1. It's not my opinion. 2. It's not about the (over)use of parentheses. Just a fact -- that it's ironically inappropriate in that place. You'll agree that I used it in this comment to show its utility. :-)
    – Kris
    May 12, 2012 at 17:35
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    @Kris - Use of parentheses in an attribution statement is not the sort of use this question is asking about. May 13, 2012 at 2:23
  • @Neil Fine An attribution statement is one of the many cases where parentheses are used, none of which can claim an exception on merits to this question. See my answer for a broad definition that I suggest, and my comment under it.
    – Kris
    May 13, 2012 at 8:50
  • @Neil Fine I was not commenting on the use of parentheses per se, only the irony of where it appears -- pl reread this point above -- so your comment is irrelevant in any case. :-)
    – Kris
    May 13, 2012 at 8:58

As with any technique, use it when it makes the text easier to understand, and don't overdo it (unless you're overdoing it deliberately as a stylistic choice, which should then be obvious).


Parentheses are intended for parenthetical expressions and recognizing correctly what is and what is not a parenthetical expression in a given context governs their proper use.

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    Does this answer the OP's questions? (Is there general consensus on the extent to rely on parentheses? Do parentheses generally make writing more or less clear?)
    – JLG
    May 12, 2012 at 20:17
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    This is the necessary and sufficient answer within the scope of a Q&A site. A categorical statement is all that can be given. A complete list of where to use parentheses and where not cannot be attempted here.
    – Kris
    May 13, 2012 at 8:38

Sparingly is good.

Most commonly, a pair of parentheses is useful to set off a strong or weak interruption, rather like a pair of dashes or a pair of bracketing commas.

As a rule we prefer parentheses, rather than dashes or bracketing commas, when the interruption is best regarded as a kind of "aside" from the writer to the reader.


When I express my thoughts online (and I have to make parenthetical statements) I love parentheses. For me they're like talking to someone and saying something under my breath. I love getting that extra bonus idea into my already lengthy sentence creations.

But when I'm writing something that I intend to make money or get a grade out of I (almost) never use parentheses. If I were to make a lecture to a crowded auditorium I am not likely to express a side note under my breath. I'm going to want to make sure that everything important is clearly stated and that everything unimportant is nonexistent. The same goes for writing.

When you write for grades or money eliminate parentheses. Period. ("But what if..." NO. Eliminate parentheses. Period.) If the parenthetical thought you have is important it needs to be integrated into the text. If the parenthetical thought you have is unimportant it needs to be excised like an ugly wart on an otherwise beautiful face.

Parentheses are a tool of the lazy writer. A writer that can't be bothered to make a decision as to whether or not that bonus idea is important to the reader. Don't force your reader to be subject to your written mumblings. Don't use parentheses professionally. (All right?)

  • 1
    I take it that it is more a matter of your personal preference than empirical.
    – Kris
    May 12, 2012 at 17:50
  • @Kris Ask a subjective question, get a subjective answer
    – Jed Oliver
    May 12, 2012 at 17:57
  • The parenthesized sign off sounds too prescriptive, though. Doesn't it? :-)
    – Kris
    May 12, 2012 at 18:04
  • I assume you mean, "don't use parentheses in running text"? May 13, 2012 at 2:24

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