Brackets and Parentheses

Brackets and Parentheses are punctuation marks in English which everyone knows, but many people get wrong. Even native speakers.

But before getting on to how to use them, we’ll begin by explaining exactly what the difference between them are.

Types of Bracket

There are 2 types of brackets common in English.

First come Brackets which are straight which is why they’re sometimes called Square Brackets.

Then come Parentheses which are gently curved. Note that when there’s one gentle curve it’s called a Parenthesis but when there are more than one they’re called Parentheses. But you’ll find people call them Round Brackets, Soft Brackets, and sometimes Circle Brackets.

But note that these are the “official” names for these three types of punctuation. In everyday parlance people talk about brackets and usually mean parentheses. If they want to specify they’ll talk about straight brackets or round brackets.

How to Use Parentheses

Use parentheses to set aside information which isn’t really necessary but which is nice to know.

Robert Downey Junior (who shares the same birth date as my uncle) was on the Jimmy Kimmel show last night.

As you can imagine, the listener can live without the birthday information so it’s put in parentheses because it’s not really necessary and doesn’t add to the main story. If the information is a little more relevant then we could easily use commas to separate off the phrase:

Robert Downey Junior, who flew into early yesterday from Guam, was on the Jimmy Kimmel show last night.

We can also use parentheses to separate off entire sentences:

Robert Downey Junior, who flew into early yesterday from Guam, was on the Jimmy Kimmel show last night. (And he was awesome!)

On a grammatical note, parentheses are separate from the sentence so we don’t include them in any verb conjugation:

Robert Downey Junior (and his dog) was on tv last night.
Robert Downey Junior and his dog were on tv last night.

One final note, when the parentheses contain an entire sentence, the period or full stop, etc, comes within the closing parenthesis. On the other hand, if the parentheses are at the end of a sentence then the punctuation comes after them. Compare this next example with the last.

Robert Downey Junior, who flew into early yesterday from Guam, was on the Jimmy Kimmel show last night (and very funny also)!

How to Use Brackets

Brackets are used to show where information is missing.

The inscription is hard to read but appears to say, “May the […] the West, in time of need, […] two years of plenty.”

Possibly we do not know the information so to show this we use square brackets and ellipses. Or perhaps the information is so sensitive that it was removed on purpose.

I first met with […] in Spring […] in St Petersburg at his house in […]. His handler, Dr. […] had introduced us earlier that year.

In other words, text has been redacted and replaced by square brackets and ellipsis.

We also use brackets to explain quotes or other texts.

“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver [about $350 in today’s money] to the chief priests and elders…”

We often use it to clarify information. The original quote may be:

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

But we could supply the missing information:

“I did not have sexual relations with [Monica Lewinsky].”

Finally, to show someone has made an error in a text and we are repeating it with that error, we use this special construction to show that we know there’s an error but we’re showing you exactly how it is without correcting it:

“This is just a note to wish you luck tomorrow [sic]”

Sic comes from the Latin, sic erat scriptum meaning thus was it written.

Useful Links
Ellipsis‏‎ in English Punctuation – when information is missing, how to do you show this

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Posted in Sentence Structure.

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