Several times I've seen lists formatted like this:

My parenthetical pet peeves:
1) Referring to a single parenthesis as "a parenthesee" or something similarly beastly.
2) Smiley faces preceding closing parentheses. (How do you handle them? :))
3) Unmatched parentheses.

To me, it would make more sense to enclose the numbers in parentheses:

My parenthetical pet peeves:
(1) Referring to a single parenthesis as "a parenthesee" or something similarly beastly.
(2) Smiley faces preceding closing parentheses. (How do you handle them? :))
(3) Unmatched parentheses.

Or to use periods:

My parenthetical pet peeves:

1. Referring to a single parenthesis as "a parenthesee" or something similarly beastly.
2. Smiley faces preceding closing parentheses. (How do you handle them? :))
3. Unmatched parentheses.

I'm not the only one who is unsettled by unmatched parentheses. Is there authoritative sanction or condemnation of this method of formatting list numerals?

  • I often wonder about #2 (can an emoticon's smile function as a closing parenthesee? ;^) – J.R. May 15 '12 at 22:31
  • 4
    Find an authority that matches your prejudice, and you'll be happy. Then I can find one (or deny the existence of one) that matches mine. And neither of us is wrong. – Colin Fine May 15 '12 at 22:42
  • Bringhurst, p 71: “4.4.2 Avoid overpunctuating lists. .. If the numbers are made visible either through positions (e.g., by hanging them in the margin) or through prominence (e.g., by setting them in a contrasting fact), additional punctuation – extra periods, parentheses or the like – should rarely be required.” – tchrist May 16 '12 at 3:08
  • To avoid the emoticon/parenthesis problem, if I have a parenthetical with an emoticon, I use square brackets instead of parentheses [like this :) ] and I make sure to add a space before the closing mark. I suppose you can also do a right-to-left smiley (like this (: ) but unless you're accustomed to reading Hebrew or Arabic, it might give you eyeball whiplash. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum May 16 '12 at 17:39

Asking for a ruling on a point of style like this is generally pretty futile in English. There is no central authority. However, style manuals or internal style sheets can provide guidance, even though different ones will have varied answers.

Which answer you use depends on what document you're writing, and whether there's a style sheet that covers it. (Many corporations have internal style sheets.) If the document you're working on is to be published, one of the following general style guides (i.e., not an in-house, corporation- or publication-specific guide) may help:

  • The closest to a solid ruling on this that I found is in the Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication. Vertical lists use bare numbers followed by periods, with sub-entries using letters in the same format. Inline lists use numbers/letters inside a pair of parentheses: (1), (a), and so on. (1997, pp.158-160)

  • APA style uses numbered lists without parentheses (see Quick Answers - Formatting lists and pairs of brackets in an inline list (see Lists, part 4):

    In running text, a series of items is designated by letters in parentheses: (a) first item, (b) second item, and (c) third item.

  • The Chicago Manual of Style uses mix of bare numbers and letters, as well as items enclosed by a pair of parentheses as well as a single parenthesis, leaving the exact execution up to the writer/editor. (16th edition, CMOS 6.126 Vertical lists with subdivided items (outlines) - that's a subscriber-only link, I'm afraid.)

  • The web-centric Yahoo! Style Manual, on the other hand, barely discusses numbered lists at all, assuming that lists on the web will generally be bulleted. However, the entry on lists does have an example of an inline list (embedded in the text of a paragraph) with opening and closing parentheses.

  • I also consulted The Economist Style Guide, which uses no special formatting for lists (and doesn't even put a period after the numbers in a vertical list). The Copyeditor's Handbook is also silent on the issue.

If you're writing for internal or informal documents (emails or such), just pick a method that appeals to you and stick with it. Personally, I prefer using single brackets in vertical lists and double brackets in inline text, since you're reading up to them; but that's just a personal preference.

And one last thing: Smiley faces at the end of a parenthetical sentence will be awkward no matter how you handle them. I suggest rewriting to avoid this.


The APA format is to use bullets, but the use of a single parenthesis is also a standard elsewhere. Use of two parentheses is used far less frequently. The purpose of parentheses in this situation is purely to offset the list item, not to group words into a parenthetical clause as it is used in the English language.


It is certainly very common to use a single parenthesis for an enumerated lists. For example, the Applied Geography Conferences Author Instructions say:

Where lists are used, each item should be numbered (with the number and a single parenthesis: 1) e.g.), with numbered items separated by double spacing.


If it is ok for your personal style (or specified company style) than yes, it is. Otherwise leave it.

As I have learned it in school (and I'm from Germany so it does not refer directly to English), periods were used for numbers, parentheses for letters:

  1. Point one is divided into the subpoints a), b) and c)
    a) This is a subitem
    b) This is the next
    c) (You will never figure out this one)

  2. Second topic

I could imagine that it started in English the same way and got mixed up during time (like it is in German). I see rarely a., b. and c. but it also happens. Again, a matter of personal style.


I've seen all three ways in practice. I like to use periods with numbers and one parenthesis with letters, but that's a matter of style.


Give me parentheses (I mean open and close - two) for numbers or letters on lists contained within sentences. This avoids the confusion I always feel with I see a single parenthesis within a sentence. I start looking for the other one. It also looks like newspaper writing -- saving every letter you can. Inelegant. However, in a list of items set out on separate lines each beginning with a number or letter, use periods, an enclosing parentheses, or a single parenthesis. No confusion there, whichever you use.

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