Weekly Grammar Tip: Parentheses and Brackets

Confession: I call parentheses ‘brackets’ and brackets ‘square brackets’. As it turns out, this is not uncommon and I don’t know whether it’s a reflection of our school system, laziness, or ‘what everyone else does’. What’s the difference? Parentheses are the curved lines: ( ) and brackets are the squared-off lines: [ ]

Parentheses and brackets have two different uses.

Parentheses (singular is parenthesis) are used within a sentence to embrace a phrase that’s ‘in addition’ to what you’re writing, but not really important enough to have its very own sentence:

  • When ordering pizza, ensure you give the appropriate delivery instructions (use the ‘additional information’ box on the order form) or your pizza may not be delivered.
  • Staying in bed with a book (I’m in the middle of a great one) would be a perfect day for me (tea optional)!

Parentheses can be used in both formal and informal circumstances, as you can see in the above examples.

Brackets have two uses. The first is when you want to use parentheses within parentheses:

  • I love red wine (preferably shiraz [Peacock Hill is my favourite] or merlot) with blue cheese on bread (I love ciabatta [semi-toasted or warm is even better] or fresh turkish bread).

The second is in referencing when you need to explain or clarify a point within a quotation, for example this quote from Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Using this quote in a sentence, you might adapt it slightly using a combination of ellipses and brackets:

  • Mark Twain claimed he ” … never let [his] schooling interfere with [his] education”.

There is a third type of bracket, called a brace, which is that little curly one most commonly used in mathematics: { }

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3 comments on “Weekly Grammar Tip: Parentheses and Brackets

  1. Pingback: Weekly Grammar Tip: Commas « dodging commas

  2. I’ll admit it – I’m guilty of using the phrase “square brackets”!

    Sadly, I seem to fumble the word “parentheses” everytime I say it, unless I do so veeeerrry sllooooowwlly. 😉

    (Also – have you noticed that the word “bracket” stops looking like a word after you’ve looked at it too many times? Uh-oh…)

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