Parentheses and brackets

The difference between brackets and parentheses can be a bit confusing. Generally, ‘parentheses’ refers to round brackets ( ) and ‘brackets’ to square brackets [ ]. However, we are more and more used to hearing these referred to simply as ’round brackets’ or ‘square brackets’.

Usually we use square brackets – [ ] – for special purposes such as in technical manuals. Round brackets – ( ) – are used in a similar way to commas when we want to add further explanation, an afterthought, or comment that is to do with our main line of thought but distinct from it. Many grammarians feel that the parentheses can, in fact, be replaced by commas in nearly all cases.

Parentheses are punctuation marks that are used to set off information within a text or paragraph. Outside the realm of emoticons, parentheses always come in pairs. They can enclose a single word, a phrase, or even an entire sentence. Typically, the words inside the parentheses provide extra information about something else in the sentence.

Curators from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) have announced a new dinosaur exhibit. While walking down the street (paying more attention to her phone than to her feet), Catherine tripped over the curb and sprained her ankle.

Brackets, sometimes called square brackets, are most often used to show that words have been added to a direct quotation. Sometimes, when quoting a person or document, adding a word or two is necessary to provide enough context for the quote to make sense. For example, the original sentence you want to quote might read “We went and had a great time.” Out of context, this sentence doesn’t mean much. But you can add bracketed information to make the context clear.

“We went [to the new dinosaur exhibit] and had a great time.”

It’s extremely important to use brackets when you change a direct quote—forgetting to add them results in a misquote.

Parentheses or Brackets With Surrounding Punctuation

Treat parentheses or brackets and the words inside them as separate from the rest of the sentence. Any sentence that contains a parenthetical element should still make sense if the element is removed.

Meena (studied all night for) the grammar test.
Meena studied (all night) for the grammar test.
Meena studied for the grammar test.

Periods, question marks, and exclamation points should go before the closing parenthesis or bracket only if they belong to the words inside the parentheses or brackets. If the punctuation belongs to the surrounding sentence, put them outside the parentheses or brackets. Never put a comma immediately before a closing parenthesis.

After dinner (an enormous, healthy salad,) Posey treated herself to ice cream.
After dinner, (an enormous, healthy salad) Posey treated herself to ice cream.
After dinner (an enormous, healthy salad), Posey treated herself to ice cream.

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