Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

It is important to realize that using the right punctuation at the right time can be just as important as correct spelling or proper word choice. In previous entries of Grammar 101, we’ve taken a look at colons and semicolons, for instance, as well as how a well-placed comma can completely alter the meaning of a sentence. Today, we’ll be taking a look at brackets and parentheses.

The Common Parenthesis: ( and )

Most of us will commonly refer to the ( and ) symbols as “brackets.” This isn’t strictly incorrect, but it would be more precise and less ambiguous to refer to those vertical curved lines as parentheses instead. It should also be noted that “parentheses” is the plural form, whereas “parenthesis” is the singular form.

In writing, supplementary information can be placed within the parentheses to offset it from the rest of the sentence. The sentence should still make perfect sense if you were to remove that portion.

Happy Pho is located on Main Street (near King Edward Avenue).
I bought the shirt (on sale for $10) from Walmart.

While it can be confusing to know where to put your punctuation with quotation marks, the “rule” for parentheses is much more straightforward. If the part in the parentheses is a part of the overall sentence, your final punctuation should go outside (as above). If the punctuation pertains to the part inside the parentheses, then it should go inside. Also, if you have a complete standalone sentence inside of the parentheses, it should also have its final punctuation on the inside.

Rebecca (known to many as “Miss 604”) is a Vancouver blogger.
Joe decided not to buy the car. (It was in bad shape.)

The Square Bracket: [ and ]

Square brackets (sometimes simply called “brackets”) serve an entirely different purpose than their rounder parenthetical counterparts. The most common usage is in the context of a direct quote from someone. The portion of the quote enclosed within the square brackets offsets the portion that is not a direct quote, being added for clarification.

Original quote: “I don’t like it, especially if he is getting one too.”
Edited quote: “I don’t like [the new iPhone], especially if [Roger] is getting one too.”

Some people like to keep all of the original words in there rather than replacing the part that needs clarification. Both forms are acceptable, but I prefer the first method myself.

“I don’t like it [the new iPhone], especially if he [Roger] is getting one too.”

The other common scenario where you may see square brackets is with “[sic].” You can check that post for more information on its usage.

The Curly Brace: { and }

In most forms of writing, you are unlikely to encounter what are called curly braces, curly brackets or squiggly brackets. The { and } are used extensively in other contexts, though. These include mathematics, physics and programming languages. They’re also used for notations in music and poetry. Most of us don’t have to worry about these brackets.

Less and Greater Than: < and >

Just as curly brackets are rarely used in regular writing, the < and > symbols (which aren’t really “brackets” in the traditional sense) really don’t come into play either. The biggest exception to this would be in the context of something like HTML code. You might enclose some text in <strong> and </strong> tags to make them bold, for example.

More and More Brackets

It is important to note that I am talking about standard English practices, as these symbols may be used for different purposes in other languages. With certain East Asian texts, you might come across entirely different punctuation like “double angle” brackets (《 and 》) and “corner” brackets (「 and 」).

Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? It could be about word choice, punctuation, sentence structure or just about anything else. Feel free to offer your suggestion by submitting a comment below.