When Do You Use Parentheses In An Essay

Tips for using brackets (parentheses) effectively

Writers, have you ever found yourselves with a great deal of important information that you want to include in a sentence but had difficulty finding a spot for all of it? Fitting everything into a sentence can be tricky, but this is where brackets are useful. Brackets (parentheses) are punctuation marks used within a sentence to include information that is not essential to the main point. Information within parentheses is usually supplementary; were it removed, the meaning of the sentence would remain unchanged. Intrigued? Keep reading!

Help! There are so many kinds of brackets!

There are four main types of parentheses that can be used in writing. However, not all of them are acceptable for use within all fields of writing. The four main types of brackets are:

  1. Curved Brackets or Parentheses (…) are the most commonly used and are the focus of this article.
  2. Square Brackets […] are most often used to include additional information from an outside source (someone other than the original author).
  3. Curly Brackets {…} are often used in prose to designate a list of equal choices.
  4. Angle Brackets <…> are typically used to enclose and illustrate highlighted information.

This article focuses on the use of curved parentheses (as they are the most common type in everyday writing). Curved brackets serve different purposes depending on the style of writing they are used in, e.g., they can be used in formal documents and in informal documents for two completely different purposes.

Formal writing

In formal writing, parentheses are often used to provide supplementary information within a sentence. This information is not essential to the sentence, but the reader will benefit from knowing it.  For example, when referring to a member of a company in a formal document, it is not uncommon to see "Mr. Adam McCabe (CEO, LulzTV.com) expressed profound sadness upon hearing of the bard’s death." Here, had the bracketed information been left out, the meaning of the sentence would not have changed, but the reader benefits from knowing the additional information about Mr. McCabe.

Informal writing

If you've read Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, then you already know about the use of parentheses to represent a character's innermost thoughts. These thoughts are expressed within brackets and are not spoken aloud for other characters to hear. Brackets are used heavily within stream-of-consciousness writing as a way for the author to show the reader what a character is thinking without having to create dialogue. Be careful though, because the overuse of parentheses can lead to a cluttered and confusing text.


If you have ever written an academic paper, then you have undoubtedly used curved brackets for your in-text citations. These citations usually occur at the end of a sentence and provide the reader with the source of the information that the author used in the sentence. You will often see these in academic journals, for example: "It has been said that the origin of the spoon dates back to the Middle Paleolithic, when man began using the hollowed out shells of small turtles to sip water (Ferreira, 1986)." The information in the parentheses is essential, not to the meaning of the sentence, but to avoid plagiarism.


Our editors often come across common errors involving brackets and punctuation.

Here is an example of punctuating parentheses:

Incorrect: I went to the mall yesterday. (even though I had no money)

Correct: I went to the mall yesterday (even though I had no money).

Since the information in the parentheses is part of the sentence, it must be placed inside the period.

Using brackets—whether in a business plan or a short story—can be an effective way to include extra information in a sentence. Although they can be useful, try not to use brackets excessively or the clarity of your writing will suffer. If you're struggling with the use of brackets, then send your document to our academic editors.

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Parentheses are most commonly seen these days as the lower half of emoticons. They're good for much more than just being the smile in a smiley face, though. Learning how to properly use the crescents atop your 9 and 0 keys can add a whole new dimension to your writing. The following is as comprehensive a list as of parenthetical uses as I could come up with. If I'm missing one, be sure to let me know!

Use Parentheses to Enclose Numbers or Letters in a Series

There is no hard-set rule for using parentheses to set off items in a series. That's good news for you because that means you have quite a few options from which to choose. Get creative and choose one of the following options that best represents your style. Notice I said ONE of the following. Consistency is best in that it makes your writing cohesive and doesn't confuse your readers. So even if you think mixing up all the different styles of setting off items with parentheses looks so cool, restrain yourself for your readers' sake.

  • Three elements to a story include (1)characters, (2)setting, and (3)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include 1)characters, 2)setting, and 3)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include 1.)characters, 2.)setting, and 3.)plot
  • Three elements to a story include (a)characters, (b)setting, and (c)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include a)characters, b)setting, and c)plot.
  • Three elements to a story include a.)characters, b.)setting, and c.)plot.

Use Parentheses to Enclose Supplemental Information

This "supplemental information" includes asides, tangents, and afterthoughts. In general, anything that can be removed from the sentence without altering its meaning can be enclosed in parentheses. Take a look at the following examples to get a better idea of what counts as extraneous material.

For the last five years (some say longer), the house on the hill has been haunted.

We read Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" (one of my favorite stories) this semester in class.

Use Parentheses to Indicate the Plural of Nouns

Sometimes you may not know whether or not you are dealing with a noun that is singular or plural. At other times, you may actually try to hide from your audience how many (if any) of the nouns are present. If the idea of not knowing in advance how many of a thing you are writing about (or intentionally trying to hide that number) confuses you, just look at the following examples.

If anyone has any information about the person(s) who committed this crime, please call the sheriff's office.

In the following section of the exam, circle the grammatical error(s) in each of the sentences.

Use Parentheses to Indicate an Acronym

When writing, it is often much easier to substitute an abbreviation for an unwieldy word (or set of words). It's convention to write whatever it is that will be abbreviated out in full at least once in a document and to indicate  next to it enclosed in parentheses the acronym that will thereafter be used to refer to it. In MLA style, it's actually required to do so.

President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.

The mission of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is to stop drunk driving altogether.

Use Parentheses to Enclose Dates

When including the dates for a person or event, place them in parentheses immediately to the right of the person or event they refer to.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is one of my favorite poets.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) is an inspiration to aspiring authors everywhere.

Use Parentheses to Enclose Citations

I will go into much further detail about citation styles in following posts. For now, it's enough to say that parentheses play a huge part in executing in-text citations (a.k.a. parenthetical citations).

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is one of the most well-known quotes in literature, even among those who have never read A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens).
Whew! For such unobtrusive marks of punctuation, you can sure get quite a bit of use out of parentheses. One last word of warning: as with all things in life, use parentheses only in moderation. Even the most tolerant of readers can become irritated by a set of parentheses every other word.

Photo credit: theilr

Posted in: parentheses, punctuation

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