Writing Tip: Do You Overuse Parentheses?

You know parentheses? (Those little crescent-shaped thingies?) Well, sometimes they drive me crazy (overuse, lack of clarity, fuzzy writing).

I have nothing against parentheses in themselves. I'm just not so fond of them that I crave a steady supply. Used heedlessly, they irritate me, much like someone whispering in my ear ("We're out of milk") while I'm talking on the phone. I mean, was that really necessary?

Parentheses serve a purpose. It's just not nearly so ubiquitous a purpose as many people think, judging by their writing. Some folks are as liberal in their use of parentheses as a sower with a bagful of seed, blithely scattering handfuls of little grammar-curls across the meadows. That approach may make for easy writing but not for easy reading. The result is often confusing or irrelevant and almost always annoying. With a little thought, a writer usually can find a much better solution--and should.

Sometimes it seems like my main function as an editor is weed-whacking parentheses that crop up in a writer's paragraphs like quack grass on his literary lawn. Removing them--or in some cases, clarifying their content--almost always improves the lucidity and forcefulness of a sentence. That's because parentheses too often are the product not of judicious usage but of inexperienced or just plain slapdash writing. Such writing can't be improved simply by wrapping extra information inside a couple of curlicues and dropping it into a sentence. The solution isn't parentheses: it's taking the time and thought necessary to state one's ideas logically, fully, concisely, and readably.

But don't take just my word for it. Mark Twain, a man not prone to velvet-coating his opinions, wrote, "A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it."*

I'm not as brutal as Twain. I believe that parentheses, rightly employed, are useful and even necessary. I don't advocate their eradication, just their careful use, which in many cases will result in their much-reduced use. Often, commas will serve better.

Frequent use of parentheses usually indicates other problems in a person's writing. Next time you find yourself resorting to a parenthesis, stop and consider why. Have you adopted the passive voice as your default? Blurred the link between a pronoun and its antecedent? Tried to cram too much information into a single sentence? Moreover, is your parenthetical content clear or opaque? Essential or redundant?

Examine your motive for using a parenthesis. Are you doing so because it truly is your best solution, appropriate for the context--or are you merely seeking a shortcut because, for whatever reason, you don't want to take the time and thought to express yourself in the clearest way possible? If the latter is true, then, trust me, a parenthesis is no magic bullet. You'll only shoot yourself through the foot with it, and some editor like me will have to remove the slug later on and bandage you up.

So take the time to say it well from the start. That doesn't mean you should utterly avoid using parentheses. Just use them sparingly, know why you're using them, and make sure your reasons for doing so are good. Your readers may never recognize and appreciate your parenthetical maturity, but I will (if I ever edit your writing).

_______________ * Thanks for cluing me in on the Twain quote, Lis! Samuel Clemens had much to say about literary matters, all of it valuable and wise.  

8 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Do You Overuse Parentheses?

  1. Not a fan of the level of parenthesis that are used, especially in web writing. You’re right, they make the writing less direct and clear. I’m looking for more ammo against the use of the in web writing like:

    Jim Smith
    (Head of the Creative Writing Program)

    They’re just over used, and not usually needed. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Brian. Parentheses surely do get overused, and I hope my article has given you some of the ammo you need to help people trim them back.

    I should mention that some kinds of writing make frequent, legitimate use of parentheses. Research papers and scientific journals, for instance, include parentheses freely for in-text citations. Such usage is appropriate to the style. But that’s not the kind of writing most of us do.

  3. Jeff, ask her whether she’s open to a little input on her writing. If so, then you’ve got her permission to discuss the matter with her, and you could show her this post. If not, then just leave her be. Unsolicited advice usually just breeds resentment.

    Many of my friends aren’t good writers, and I’m okay with that. They’re smart, accomplished people who shine in areas other than grammar and style. This blog is where I get to address writing issues that I usually overlook in my everyday communications with friends and family (though my family members are in fact good writers).

  4. mark twain was a dolt (I like parenthesis). If you struggle to understand what a person is writing, then you need to improve your reading skills. Sometimes the writer believes that it may be necessary to add additional info to understand his/her point. People write and tend to be ambiguous(so they use parenthesis). No need to be a grammar Nazi on the web. Its the web

  5. For charity’s sake, Bob, I’ll assume you’re expressing an honest opinion and not merely trolling. The way to begin here is not by calling a literary genius a dolt. You’d do far better to heed your own advice as stated in your second sentence: Improve your reading skills, because you clearly have not understood my post.

    In your third sentence, you make a point I can, with some reservation, agree with. But that’s not news–I stated in my article that I have no objection to parentheses when they’re used for the right reasons. (I use them myself, albeit sparingly.) What I take issue with is the sloppy use of parentheses, which you both advocate and practice.

    About that word ambiguous: In the hands of a good writer, ambiguity can sometimes be a tool that is used to clever effect. Most of the time, though, it is nothing more than shoddy writing, and the way to fix it isn’t to heave in a parenthesis, nor is it to blame the reader for failing to understand what has been poorly stated. The way to fix it is to write more clearly.

    As for being a “grammar Nazi,” I’m an editor. I get paid to nitpick in order to help people who care about their writing excel at it. I have no compunction about goose-stepping all over slapdash writing when it matters. It doesn’t always matter; on Facebook, for instance, I don’t much care. Perhaps that’s what you were getting at when you referred to the web. But there are plenty of other places on the web where good writing does matter, sometimes a great deal. This blog is an example.

    Revisiting your second sentence, Bob, what you’ve said is certainly one possibility: a person who struggles to understand what someone else has written may need to improve his reading skills. But it’s far likelier that the writer needs to improve his writing skills. Your brief comment demonstrates both sides of the equation. Rather than excusing bad writing, why not improve your own abilities as both a writer and a reader? And while you’re at it, consider that the respect with which you present an opinion determines the respect you’ll be shown in response.

  6. I think it really depends on how technical the content is. I use parentheses quite often at work and sometimes they are needed to express details about a technical concept in the business context.

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