Parentheses have many uses; I find myself reaching for them often. Increasingly though, I realise I can convey the same meaning without parentheses with little or only minor loss in succinctness. The benefits of not using parentheses, it seems to me, is that parentheses almost always throw off the reader in the reading flow of the sentence. Parentheses provide little information about how, when reading, the reader should enter and exit the parenthesised statement in a fluid manner.

This is not always the case, for instance consider the sentence from wikipedia:

"Mrs. Pennyfarthing (What? Yes, that was her name!) was my landlady."

Here, the statement inside the parentheses evokes a switch in tone and style of narration that would be difficult to convey otherwise. Still it suffers from the fluidity problem.

Other times as in the following sentence it is possible to remove the parentheses and accurately convey the same meaning, but necessarily with a loss in tone, e.g.

"My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three."

But there are a huge number of cases when the parentheses appear easily omittable, such as:

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please. (Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.)"

Is there any benefit of using parentheses in these cases?

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    Parentheses -- either round brackets as here, or dashes or square brackets -- simply serve to add an elucidation which can safely be omitted. That is their sole purpose; the benefit is to indicate the status of the text they contain. – Andrew Leach Mar 10 '13 at 9:59
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    Relevant: Parenthetically – Goodbye Stack Exchange Mar 10 '13 at 17:04
  • Related: Do parentheses inhibit clarity? writers.stackexchange.com/questions/5654/… – Jed Oliver Mar 11 '13 at 18:44

You say the first example "suffers from the fluidity problem." That is because it was meant to suffer from the fluidity problem. It is a kind of anacoluthon—usually set off by dashes—which is an intentional break in sentence construction, meant to disrupt the flow for a rhetorical effect.

In the second case, parentheses offer a quick way to add information into the flow of the sentence without awkward or excessive addition of syntax. To omit the parentheses there and still add examples, one would have to add extra words:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident involving lightning at a picnic when I was three.

That's still parenthetical information and it might benefit from commas, but the original version involving two words in parentheses conveys all that information in a more compact style.

In the third example, the parentheses are used as an aside, a turning away from the main narrative thrust to amplify a point that may deviate from the main narrative thread. It is impossible to tell whether it does so without more context.

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  • I probably wasn't clear, but by 'these cases' I was referring only to the third example. Anyway, I get that parentheses cause an intentional break in the sentence construction. The problem I face with them is that they are far less informative in comparison to other punctuation of how they should be read. I could just be wrong though. – zenna Mar 10 '13 at 18:33
  • @zenna Can you give a version of your third example with "more informative" punctuation? I don't understand what that means or what you're comparing the parentheses to. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Mar 10 '13 at 20:15
  • I mean in comparison to a comma, or full-stop or nothing for example. The last sentence is actually a very bad example of what I am suggesting about "more informative", because it is an entire separate sentence within the parentheses. I refer more to examples where the parentheses are embedded in a sentence. For example I find it difficult to read aloud the first example I gave: "Mrs. Pennyfarthing (What? Yes, that was her name!) was my landlady.". Perhaps I just can't read, but it feels ambiguous how we transition from Pennyfarthing to What?. – zenna Mar 10 '13 at 22:03
  • @zenna That's because the Pennyfarthing example is extreme. It's a humorous interjection from a narrator who is addressing the reader. Even first-person stories usually don't have the narrator talking to the reader. You're getting hung up on something which occurs once in five hundred books. In that instance, the "benefit" is that it makes the text feel more like the narrator is actually sitting next to you, telling you a story over tea and biscuits. If that bothers you, don't read that kind of book (e.g., The Hobbit). – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Mar 11 '13 at 0:21

Sometimes, parentheses can be vital to your essay (except when they're not). I think they're more properly used when they contain either a subjunctive clause, or an adjective. Anything else is like intentionally breaking fluidity — and that's the job of a dash.

There are very few cases in which parentheses are actually necessary to your work. The easiest example to cite when they are relevant is in technical writing (see Appendix A). It can also be used, still in technical writing, to set up an acronym which you will use later. Saying Theory of Constraints (TOC) now will save you time and space when you have to say TOC later.

I use it to clarify something that doesn't really deserve its own sentence, but you can't use em dashes for because you already are using the dash somewhere else in the same paragraph. For example:

"As compared with current policy, adopting a new machine reduces expected costs to PhP 4,290.71 (0.14% lower than simply changing policies), saving management PhP 143,152.56 over 365 days — a 1.6% increase compared to changing policies but not buying the new machine."

Parentheses also feel like dashes that take less time mentally to pronounce. So, it feels like things in parentheses are less important than if you put them in the dashes.

"Still resting from yesterday, I suddenly found out I had an exam today (I thought it was tomorrow), so I went ahead and crammed."


"Still resting from yesterday, I suddenly found out I had an exam today — I thought it was tomorrow — so I went ahead and crammed."

Of course, this is just my (incomplete) list, and again, you can use the parentheses with adjectives that feel more secondary to the sentence. The fact that you can omit the things in the parentheses automatically make us think that they're already secondary, and less important. That's why, when reading sentences aloud that have something enclosed in parentheses in them, we often skip the things said in the parentheses. It might be easy to take these things for granted (and we often do), but they are quite important — especially if you're a writer.

(Sorry if this reply's use of parentheses seems forced. There's just too many parentheses!)

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Robusto has already discussed the way that the parentheses perform specific jobs. In some ways, aren't they analogous to techniques like the passive voice? Passive sentences can be used to accomplish specific goals ("The woman was praised by all the people" keeps the emphasis on the woman instead of on the people praising her), but can be easily overused and misused, and are therefore avoided by many writers.

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