I wrote a dialogue as follows:

Then he said to her: "I told you I won't do that! (And I think you shouldn't either)".

Somebody then asked me: How is a speech in a parenthesis?

I'd like to know if you can understand that it is something said in a lower tone, as if it didn't belong to the main line of thought or not. Is it usual in writing?

I've seen some posts such as the following and they look pretty dubious to me: http://www.writingforums.org/threads/can-you-use-parentheses-in-dialogue.61993/

The questions, then, are:

  1. Is it correct?
  2. Is it usual?
  3. Is it understandable?
  4. Are there alternatives?
  • Parenthesis in conversation definitely seems like something to be used in self-thought or from the characters perspective.
    – JBeck
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 1:11
  • 2
    I do recall some authors doing that - especially in humorous, tongue-in-cheek works. A serious, self-respecting book will avoid that, but a humorous one? Characters may even talk in footnotes there!
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 3:43
  • 1
    @SF. Once you're talking about a humorous book, there are an awful lot of rules which can go out the window. :) Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 11:31

6 Answers 6


Is it correct? Strictly speaking, it's not wrong, but it's really hard to hear someone saying a parenthesis.

Is it usual? No. In fact, I can't remember ever seeing it.

Is it understandable? I guess, although I would do a massive double take and think that the author was being too bookish.

Are there alternatives? Yes. I'd use M-dashes, commas, or stage business as noted in Seth Gordon's answer.


Then he said to her: "I told you I won't do that!” In an undertone, he added, “And I think you shouldn’t either.”

Unfortunately, I think that’s the best you can do. I’ve hardly ever seen parentheses used as punctuation within dialogue, so if I saw it now, I would have no idea how to interpret them.

  • 2
    I'll probably follow this line of thought, although I think it is too verbose. I've seen things like this in the Bible, and in an exerpt from "Whose Body" as follows: "Bosh!" said Lord Peter. "I am retained (by old Mrs. Thipps, for whom I entertain the greatest respect) to deal with this case, and it's only by courtesy I allow you to have anything to do with it."
    – ClayKaboom
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 11:08
  • 2
    @ClayKaboom You might be able to get away with that structure if your entire story, including narration, is that curlicue Victorian prose, but not if you're writing in modern English. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 11:52

I agree with Seth Gordon. Parentheses in dialogue are so rarely seen, they could be interpreted in many ways. I would recommend being explicit in dialogue.


Although rare complex punctuation can be used in dialog (although in your example I would use an em dash), but as most dialog is simple; because outside of a classroom, most of us aren't paying close enough attention to speech to get great subtleties; the normal approach is to simplify your dialog to make it easier to understand and more realistic. Two exceptions to this are language geeks (some of the things I've said need serious parsing) and technical transcripts where punctuation is implied by the speaker particularly when the topic under discussion is primarily written such as formal grammars.


I definitely came across it multiple times in the Harry Potter series. First of all, yes, it is correct and used in the older books. Second of all, no, it isn’t really usual nowadays, though back then it was more usual. Third of all, it can be understandable, but I guess it depends on the readers age or education level, or if they ever came across it. Personally, when the parenthesis is used, I always thought the person was muttering the thing inside the text, for example, “Your parents died from a serial murderer (which I think you probably already knew), but strictly speaking, you cannot tell this to anyone” (just a random dialog thing I made). Finally, you can use commas instead of it, for example: “Your parents died from a serial murderer, which I think you probably already knew, but strictly speaking, you cannot tell this to anyone. Honestly, IMHO, I don’t recommend you using them, merely because many people do not know what it is, and will become very veryconfused, as I did. this is probably not going to be read by you as it is late, but I hope others find it and benefit from it Hope I helped you, reader!

EDIT: I also found it in the older Charles Dickenson books (which I didn’t read, just because I was surfing the net and saw that)

  • Thanks for your insights! :) I think that this is an interesting discussion. I think that the character the has this power (of using parentheses) is the narrator, in an almost unlimited way;
    – ClayKaboom
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 12:07

1. Is it correct?

Yes, it is correct.

Use case 1: Using parentheses to indicate words of less importance such as during a digression or mumbling.

"... I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time."

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Use case 2: Using parentheses to indicate action of the speaker or present some other information not spoken by the speaker.

"... Yes, I understand the sort of mind. Vigorous, decided, with sentiments to a certain point, not coarse. A better written letter, Harriet, (returning it,) than I had expected."

Jane Austen, Emma

Here's another one from a modern book:

"... You an see her padding feet and feel the stink of blood on the breath. (Meanwhile he Henry Wyatt, in a cold lather of fear, backs off, backs away, in the direction of help.) In his soft enchanting voice ..."

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

2. Is it usual?

Parentheses inside quotes are not usual.

In Use case 1, commas are preferred, and in Use case 2, it is preferred to break the dialogue is and convey the additional information in the "dialogue tag".

The example from Wolf Hall is an excerpt from a long dialogue; the character is telling a story to others. I can see why the author didn't want to break the dialogue and, so, she used parentheses.

Using parentheses inside dialogue such as in Use case 2 can be a useful tool to the author. However, overusing it may seem tacky, so it's probably best to save it for one or two really special cases.

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