For Fewer Parentheses

by Mark L. Levinson

The Institute of General Semantics calls its magazine ETC. as a salute to the unwritten “etc.” at the end of every sentence.  Theoretically we could always write “etc.” because we can never exhaust any topic.

Just as everything we write could be reasonably etceterized, everything we write could be reasonably parenthesized.  We have nothing to write about that isn’t subordinate or tangential to a more important point.

For the reader, though, parentheses add an extra chore:  while reading what is parenthesized, the reader must also remember what was interrupted.  So “Are these parentheses necessary” is always a good question.

Where you come from, did the TV people do what they did to me in the USA?  Toward the end of the show, they’d say there’s more to come after the commercial break, but after you’d waited through the commercial all you got was the closing credits.  That’s what it’s like when you open a parenthesis and after the reader has read through it and returns to the sentence, the only thing left is the period.  The TV people need to create the expectation of a continuation because otherwise you wouldn’t watch the commercial.  But as a writer, you don’t need to cultivate that deception.  Often if the parenthesized material is the last thing in the sentence, you can simply give it an unparenthesized sentence of its own. 

Consider for example “Fred Astaire also played a mean piano (some people are just too talented).”  That could as easily be “Fred Astaire also played a mean piano.  Some people are just too talented.”  Removing the parentheses makes the relationship between the sentences less explicit, but the second sentence, liberated from the parentheses, simply creates its own relationship with the first sentence rather than being forced into one. 

The only problem would be if a third sentence followed that did not continue well from the second.  In that case, you can keep the parentheses, but leave the sentences separated.  “Fred Astaire also played a mean piano.  (Some people are just too talented.)  Back then it was a social skill.”

An excellent place to look for unnecessary parentheses is the end of a paragraph.  If the last sentence of a paragraph is parenthesized, in my experience it almost always doesn’t need to be.  If the parenthesized remark is a less important point or an afterthought, the end of the paragraph is a fine place for it to stand out in the open, like a modest hut on the beach with the whole city of sentences on one side and the echoless edge of the island on the other.

Of course not all parentheses are dispensable.  One thing to remember when you do use parentheses is to ensure a clear relationship between the parenthesized material and the surrounding material.  For example, if you write “There is a place where the local religion includes the worship of snakes and lizards (Squamata),” who knows whether Squamata is a name for the lizards, for the snakes and lizards, for the worship of snakes and lizards, for the religion, or for the place? 


Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.