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(All About) Parentheses

The singular form is parenthesis, but the plural parentheses is the word you’re more likely to see. Both words have a wide range of related meanings, and what some people identify as a parenthesis, others call parentheses.

So let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, a parenthesis is one of a pair of curved marks that look like this: ( ), and parentheses are both marks.

A symbol, number, word, phrase, or clause that is in parentheses explains, supplements, or comments on something in the sentence. Material in parentheses can be removed from a sentence without changing that sentence’s overall meaning or grammatical integrity.

Note the use of is in this sentence: My friend (and her brother) is coming today. The subject is My friend. Despite appearances, parentheses are never part of the subject. Remove them and we’d have two subjects, My friend and her brother, which would require the verb are coming. The use of parentheses is a clue that the writer was more concerned about the friend than about the brother.

Parentheses, long dashes, and commas are the three punctuation marks that indicate an interruption in the flow of a sentence. (Some might add semicolons, which can turn two simple sentences into a single, more complex sentence: Their eyes met; she smiled.)

Commas, the least intrusive of the three, signal the presence of relevant but nonessential data. Long dashes either expand upon the main point or take a slight detour from it. Parentheses by their very appearance let the reader know that the information fenced off by those vertical curves is a departure from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate:

Blaine, who was born in 1797 and died in 1860, did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine—he was born in 1797 and died in 1860—did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine (1797-1860) did not live to see the Civil War.

Sometimes the choice is clear. For instance, you’d never see this sentence: Blaine—1797-1860—did not live to see the Civil War. But it is also true that a writer’s use of one of these marks instead of another is often a matter of personal taste.

Parentheses can be used to form a separate sentence, as here: I hoped my friend was coming. (He canceled at the last minute.) But the writer could also have done this: I hoped my friend was coming (he canceled at the last minute). Note the placement of the period; if parentheses end a sentence, the period goes after the closing parenthesis.

Commas virtually always follow parentheses rather than precede them. This sentence is incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner. Make it When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.

Writers have a lot of leeway with parentheses, as long as they heed a few simple guidelines. Used shrewdly (and sparingly!), parentheses add color, nuance, and spice to your writing.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentence that needs it.

1. When Tony showed up, (he was right on time) we had a long talk.

2. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited.)

3. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!)

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. When Tony showed up (he was right on time), we had a long talk.

2. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited).
OR Do not exceed 25 mph. (You will be cited.)

3. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!).
OR After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water. (He really needed it!)

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Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 9:25 pm


Semicolons

Do you get confused about the proper way to use a semicolon? Semicolons do not represent a full stop at the end of a sentence, as periods do; rather, they’re like the “yellow light” of punctuation marks: they signal a pause between one sentence and the next. You slow down, then stop at the end of the second sentence.

Rule 1. Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.

Examples:
Call me tomorrow; I will give you my answer then.
They went to the scariest movie they could find; they didn’t invite their youngest sister.

Rule 2. It is preferable to use a semicolon before introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they introduce a complete sentence. It is also preferable to use a comma after the introductory word.

Examples:
You will want to bring many backpacking items; for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing will make the trip better.
As we discussed, you will bring two items; i.e., a sleeping bag and a tent are not optional.

Rule 3. Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.

Example:
This conference has people who have come from Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Pop Quiz

Select the correctly punctuated sentence.

1A. Let’s go dancing; afterward we can get dessert.
1B. Let’s go dancing, afterward we can get dessert

2A. Pizza is my favorite food; however, I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.
2B. Pizza is my favorite food, however I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.

3A. The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California, Bob Davis, Delaware, and Sandy Hu, Nevada.
3B. The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California; Bob Davis, Delaware; and Sandy Hu, Nevada.

Answers to Pop Quiz

Correct answers are indicated in bold type and by an asterisk (*).

1A.* Let’s go dancing; afterward we can get dessert.
1B. Let’s go dancing, afterward we can get dessert

2A.* Pizza is my favorite food; however, I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.
2B. Pizza is my favorite food, however I haven’t had a chance to eat it in a couple of years.

3A. The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California, Bob Davis, Delaware, and Sandy Hu, Nevada.
3B.* The three winners of the contest were Kelly Gee, California; Bob Davis, Delaware; and Sandy Hu, Nevada.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2009, at 9:56 am


Connecting Sentences with Commas and Semicolons

Many of you have been asking for help with punctuating between clauses and phrases within sentences. You want to know when you should use a comma and when you need a semicolon. Here are a few rules with examples that I hope you find very helpful.

Commas

Rule: Use a comma between two independent clauses when conjunctions such as and, or, but, for, nor connect them.

Example: I have painted the entire house, but she is still working on sanding the floors.

Rule: If the clauses are short (your call), then leave out the comma.

Example: I painted and he sanded.

Rule: If you have only one clause (one subject and verb pair), you generally won’t need a comma in front of the conjunction.

Example: I have painted the house but still need to sand the floors.
This sentence has two verbs but only one subject, so it has only one clause.

 

Semicolons

So when does the semicolon get to have its time in the spotlight?

Rule: Use the semicolon if you have two independent clauses you are connecting without a conjunction.

Example: I have painted the house; I still need to sand the floors.

Rule: Also, use the semicolon when you have commas for smaller separations, and you need the semicolon to show a bigger separation.

Example: We had a reunion with family from Salt Lake City, Utah; Los Angeles, California; and Albany, New York.

 

Pop Quiz
Select the correctly punctuated sentence.

1a. I attend the fashion shows and my husband goes to the jazz clubs.
1b. I attend the fashion shows, and my husband goes to the jazz clubs.
1c. I attend the fashion shows; and my husband goes to the jazz clubs.

2a. I love fashion and he loves jazz.
2b. I love fashion, and he loves jazz.
2c. I love fashion; and he loves jazz.

3a. I attend the fashion shows but not the jazz clubs.
3b. I attend the fashion shows, but not the jazz clubs.
3c. I attend the fashion shows; but not the jazz clubs.

4a. I attend the fashion shows my husband goes to the jazz clubs.
4b. I attend the fashion shows, my husband goes to the jazz clubs.
4c. I attend the fashion shows; my husband goes to the jazz clubs.

5a. I buy cheese, milk, and eggs at my neighborhood market apples, oranges, and grapes from the farmers’ market and aspirin, shaving cream, and deodorant from the pharmacy.
5b. I buy cheese, milk, and eggs at my neighborhood market, apples, oranges, and grapes from the farmers’ market, and aspirin, shaving cream, and deodorant from the pharmacy.
5c. I buy cheese, milk, and eggs at my neighborhood market; apples, oranges, and grapes from the farmers’ market; and aspirin, shaving cream, and deodorant from the pharmacy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1b. I attend the fashion shows, and my husband goes to the jazz clubs.

2a. I love fashion and he loves jazz.

3a. I attend the fashion shows but not the jazz clubs.

4c. I attend the fashion shows; my husband goes to the jazz clubs.

5c. I buy cheese, milk, and eggs at my neighborhood market; apples, oranges, and grapes from the farmers’ market; and aspirin, shaving cream, and deodorant from the pharmacy.

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Posted on Saturday, January 5, 2008, at 9:30 pm


Using Commas, Semicolons, and Colons Within Sentences

Punctuation within sentences can be tricky; however, if you know just a few of the following rules, you will be well on your way to becoming a polished writer and proofreader.

Rule: Use a comma between two long independent clauses when conjunctions such as and, or, but, for, nor connect them.
Example: I have painted the entire house, but she is still working on sanding the floors.

Rule: If the clauses are both short, you may omit the comma.
Example: I painted and he sanded.

Rule: If you have only one clause (one subject and verb pair), you won’t usually need a comma in front of the conjunction.
Example: I have painted the house but still need to sand the floors.
This sentence has two verbs but only one subject, so it has only one clause.

Rule: Use the semicolon if you have two independent clauses connected without a conjunction.
Example: I have painted the house; I still need to sand the floors.

Rule: Also use the semicolon when you already have commas within a sentence for smaller separations, and you need the semicolon to show bigger separations.
Example: We had a reunion with family from Salt Lake City, Utah; Los Angeles, California; and Albany, New York.

Rule: A colon is used to introduce a second sentence that clarifies the first sentence.
Example: We have set this restriction: do your homework before watching television.
Notice that the first word of the second sentence is not capitalized. If, however, you have additional sentences following the sentence with the colon and they explain the sentence prior to the colon, capitalize the first word of all the sentences following the colon.

Rule: Use a colon to introduce a list when no introductory words like namely, for instance, i.e., e.g. precede the list.
Example: I need four paint colors: blue, gray, green, and red.

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Posted on Sunday, October 1, 2006, at 10:15 pm