Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Any discussion of parentheses has to begin by giving them their due. These punctuation sets can be a great tool to convey all the information you need (in the most clear and concise manner possible).
As Grammar Girl notes, “You can use them to surround something that seems a bit out of place in the sentence – an aside, a clarification, or a commentary.”
However, she adds, “Sometimes when you go back to edit your first draft, you’ll find that you can rework your sentence to include the parenthetical statement or simply delete the things in parentheses…”
In that, parentheses sound very much like dashes, I know. And in that, they are very much like dashes. Although most grammatical experts seem to think they’re gentler. The Write Practice, for instance, puts it this way:
A parenthesis is like a close friend quietly whispering in your ear. But an em-dash is more like your high school graduating class arriving drunk on your doorstep and announcing that you are hosting this year’s reunion, and it’s happening right now.
As much as I love that first sentence of hers, I don’t think the two of us could ever be best friends. Because I’m a huge fan of em-dashes, whereas I feel that parentheses are far too easily overused.
While, as I said above, “These punctuation sets can be a great tool to convey all the information you need in the most clear and concise manner possible”…
(They can also become the very opposite.)
It’s probably not fair to blame parentheses for being overused and sloppy. It’s not their fault they’re not used properly. It’s the fault of inexperienced or uninformed writers.
And lest I sound too harsh toward inexperienced or uninformed writers, they’re largely inexperienced and uninformed because their teachers didn’t teach them properly… probably because their teachers paid too much attention to such silly things as the AP Style Guide.
This idiotic institution – and its competitors – are obsessed with making grammatical rules and then changing them as they see fit. Thanks to them, nobody but the utterly grammar-obsessed know what to do, not do and interpret as needed.
According to my mother – a writing teacher herself – that’s so they can keep selling subscriptions. Though I tend to think she’s being far too kind in that assessment.
If it was a mere love of money driving them, I could at least compliment their desire to not starve. But I sincerely think they’re just power-mad sadists who like to mess with people’s heads to make themselves feel better.
Now with that rant done and over with, let’s get to the proper usage of parentheses. Or at least how not to use them.
Remember that Grammar Girl quote we opened with? Let’s pull a particular part from it to emphasize:
Sometimes when you go back to edit your first draft, you’ll find that you can rework your sentence to include the parenthetical statement or simply delete the things in parentheses…
In those cases, please do. Otherwise, you run a rather high risk of detracting from your readers’ experience more than adding to it. Either your writing will be more confusing than it needs to be or simply more sloppy.
This is especially true if you’re using jargon: industry-specific language that non-industry individuals probably won’t recognize.
Here are just a few examples of parentheses that interrupt their host sentences’ natural flow:
1. “In the first quarter of 2015 (chart below), buyers decided they weren’t so interested in that commodity anymore.”
Compare that with: “As shown in the chart below, the first quarter of 2015 saw buyers far less interested in that commodity anymore.”
2. “Ted shook his head (he was too angry to speak) and looked away, counting to 10.”
Compare that with: “Too angry to speak, Ted shook his head and looked away, counting to 10.” 3. “Angela Thompson (evil APG Style analyst) spoke at the conference on Monday.”
Compare that with: “Evil APG Style analyst Angela Thompson spoke at the conference on Monday.”
Again, if it sounds better or flows more smoothly without the parentheses… you, your sentence and your readers are probably better off without them.
No offense to the poor, abused pieces of punctuation in question.