Parentheses: When and How to Use Them

First of all, what is a parenthesis? It’s the singular form of parentheses.

Sometimes (often) they are mistakenly called brackets. See the difference here:

Parentheses (  )

Brackets [  ]


When should you use them? They are meant to set off words that have no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.

1. Often they enclose words that are meant to add information or explain a term or idea just mentioned, but without the sudden interruption of a dash.


Three kinds of dogs (spaniels, shepherds, and chihuahas) went for a stroll in the park with their owners.

The First Amendment (guaranteeing freedom of speech) is under attack.

I cleaned the house (mainly dusted and vacuumed) and then I was ready to relax.

2. Parentheses can also be used to enclose terms given in another language.


He had a laissez-faire  (let things happen as they may) attitude.


His attitude was to let things happen as they may (laissez-faire).

3. Parentheses are used to enclose numbers in lists that are included in text.


She decided that her new diet would include (1) sun-dried tomatoes, (2) feta cheese, and (3) lots of pasta.

4. What do you do when you need to explain something and use parentheses inside parentheses?


If you do it the British way, you would use parentheses inside the original set of parentheses, but the American way uses a less confusing approach (brackets [the square kind] inside the parentheses).

5. Does the period at the end of the sentence go inside or outside the closing parenthesis?

It depends on whether the part in parentheses is a phrase inside the sentence, or whether it would stand alone as a sentence. Look closely at the subtle differences in punctuation in the examples below:

On the bakery shelf were six kinds of cake (all of which Mary wanted to taste).

On the bakery shelf were six kinds of cake. ( Mary wanted to taste all of them.)

My feeling about the use of parentheses is that they can help to explain things in an expedient way, but they are best avoided unless there is good reason to use them. Possibly they are more convenient for use in bibliographies and in scientific writing, but in fiction writing, it is often better to avoid their overuse.


Braces { }  This third type is used in programming language, as well as in mathematical and other specialized writing. Do not use them in place of parentheses or brackets.





17 thoughts on “Parentheses: When and How to Use Them

  1. Spot on, Anneli! Excellent summary. As John pointed out, in the braces are as important in CSS as the parentheses in prose. BTW: ProWritingAid does a good job of keeping tabs on the pairing of parentheses, minimizing the chance one side or the other is left off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an important thing to check for, and it can get quite unwieldy in some non-fiction work, especially when there is documentation within the body of the text. I don’t have ProWritingAid, but I’ve used the trial version. Good to know that it will do that check for the other end of the parentheses.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I did not know #4, Anneli. I’ve been doing it the British way all along! I rarely (never) use parentheses in creative writing, but I do use them informally in comments and emails, and I rarely pay attention to whether I used them correctly – like above. Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

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