Brackets (and how to use them)

So, those emoticon smiles: what else can they be used for?

Round brackets

Imagine the contents of round brackets (or parentheses) as an aside
that might be said behind your hand (an actor on a stage might anyway).

These punctuation marks come in handy to:

  • include optional information

You don’t have much time left to finish your Christmas shopping (only six shopping days!).

  • introduce an abbreviation or explain a term

At this time of year, many people suffer from Seasonal
Affective Disorder (SAD); although equally problematic during December
is pogonophobia (a fear of beards).

  • cross-refer

If you’re wondering where to put punctuation around brackets, you’ll soon find out (see below).

To learn more about pogonophobia, see The Big Book of Phobias (p92).

  • add authorial commentary (if appropriate to the context)

The effects of SAD can be quite debilitating (believe me).

  • cover several possible eventualities

The Christmas e-bulletin should be well-received by its already tipsy reader(s).

Square brackets

But parentheses are not to be confused with square brackets. These can be used to:

  • add an editor’s note or direction

Emphasis staff will be required to wear Santa hats to work throughout December [Catie to purchase these].

  • clarify meaning in a quote without changing any of the original words

She said, ‘If you make me wear that thing [the Santa hat] to work, I’m quitting.’

In these cases, you can just replace the word(s) being clarified eg

‘I said: if you make me put on [the Santa hat], I’m quitting. Humbug!’

Punctuating brackets

It can be confusing working out where to put the punctuation around brackets (but we’re here to help):

  • The first rule is quite straightforward. (If you are writing a
    full sentence inside them, the full stop – or alternative – should be
    inside the brackets.)
  • But the full stop will be on the outside if the brackets contain only part of the full sentence (as these do).
  • Put a comma outside the brackets (as demonstrated here), when those brackets appear at the end of a clause within the sentence.
  • If the bracketed aside needs a question mark or exclamation mark, you’ll still need to add a full stop on the outside to complete
    the sentence (like this!).

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams