MM: Punctuating Parentheses

A writing teacher will generally tell you to use parentheses very sparingly. I agree. When overused, they 1) become an annoying tic and 2) can lead you to include stuff that you’d be better off cutting. But that’s not to say they aren’t mighty useful at times. It’s definitely worth mastering them, thereby enlarging your punctuation arsenal.

Parentheses = Invisibility Cloak

When you use a set of parentheses, you’re cordoning off its contents from the rest of the sentence. Whatever’s inside those parentheses becomes invisible to the main sentence’s syntax and punctuation. Writers run into problems when they don’t follow that rule. Here’s an example of incomplete invisibility:

Luckily, his pet crow, (which I call Poe), caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

If the stuff inside parentheses is invisible to the main sentence, you should be able to pluck the whole parenthetical aside out without having to make any changes to the sentence’s syntax or punctuation. But when you try that with the example I’ve just quoted, this is what you get:

Luckily, his pet crow,, caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

Two commas in a row can’t be right, so the punctuation surrounding the parenthetical aside must’ve been incorrect. In fact, the writer was treating the phrase “which I call Poe” as though it were part of the main sentence, not separated out by parentheses. Here’s how it should look:

Luckily, his pet crow (which I call Poe) caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

When writers make punctuation errors within parentheses, it’s also often because invisibility is not being maintained. Such an error might look like this:

Luckily, his pet crow, (which I call Poe,) caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

When you do the plucking-out test, here, you lose one comma but not the other:

Luckily, his pet crow, caws loudly to let me know when he’s around.

No way should there be a comma in that spot. The error reveals that, once again, invisibility is not being maintained. The writer is punctuating in and around the parenthetical aside as though it were part of the main sentence.

Commas = Sheep Dogs

Another error I see has to do with grouping. When it comes to parenthetical asides, commas and periods are sort of like sheep dogs: they “herd” the aside into the right part of the sentence. Here’s an example of “comma-herding” gone wrong:

After Saran-wrapping the latest condiment-shelf concoction, I crammed it between the others I’d created over the past few nights: a bologna and apple jelly sandwich, (eew!) a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich, (blah!) and a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.

In the above sentence,  the “(eew!)” aside goes with “a bologna and apple jelly sandwich,” not “a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich,” but the comma has grouped the “(eew!)” with the latter. The same thing is happening with “(blah!)” — it should go with “a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich,” but the comma has grouped it with “a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.” Here’s how the sentence should look:

After Saran-wrapping the latest condiment-shelf concoction, I crammed it between the others I’d created over the past few nights: a bologna and apple jelly sandwich (eew!); a Swiss cheese and tartar sauce sandwich (blah!); and a peanut butter, mustard, and pickle relish sandwich.

(Want to know why I’ve replaced the commas with semicolons? See my Mechanics Moment on semicolons and complex lists.)

When a parenthetical aside appears at the end of a sentence, you have to decide whether it should stand alone as its own independent clause (in which case there has to be a complete sentence within the parentheses) or be included within the main sentence. If it really is part of the sentence, the period needs to herd it into the sentence, rather than leaving it stranded. Here’s a stranded aside:

I can only see Grandpa Edgar and Kyle, and that’s because they still have work to do on this side. (helping yours truly)

It should be punctuated thus:

I can only see Grandpa Edgar and Kyle, and that’s because they still have work to do on this side (helping yours truly).

In contrast, an aside that stands as a real independent clause should be outside the main sentence’s period and should have an internal period as well:

I didn’t like pastrami or pimento cheese, so I knew I’d been influenced by some new visiting kid. (I’m a plain ole peanut-butter-and-jelly-with-Fritos-on-the-side kind of girl.)

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