Punctuation: Wielding Parentheses

happy birthday mom.jpgI like parentheses in the context of blogging.  It allows me to sneak in all kinds of extra information.  I probably overuse them a great deal in here, but honestly, I’m not scribbling the Magna Carta.  I don’t seem to use them much in my storytelling.  That doesn’t mean you can’t though!

Note: parenthesis = singular & parentheses = plural

Let’s see how many times I screw that up.

Noah Lukeman, in his book A Dash of Style, offers an enjoyable definition of what parentheses can do.  “Parentheses, on the other hand, respectfully interrupt you, so that you needn’t cease speaking or change your train of thought.  Their interruption is more of an enhancement, like a trusted adviser whispering in your ear” (p. 112).

I like the idea of the trusted adviser whispering in your ear.  I find the occasional use of parentheses in blogging, personal correspondence, and some works of fiction make the writing feel far more personal.  The extra parenthetical insight provides a level of intimacy that is hard to achieve otherwise.

Let’s get to some applications already!

vitamins doughnuts.jpgUse them to enhance explanation or commentary.  Sometimes you want to give the reader some extra information, but writing an extra sentence would be a pain.  Maybe you want to relay a piece of information with a literary wink of the eye.  Parentheses can do both of these things by sneaking bits of information into the middle of sentences.  Just remember if you take out the parenthetical piece the sentence should still make sense.

  • Corey was surprised (which is rare) to hear about what had happened to Thor.
  • The amount of unhealthy food (donuts, pizza, ice cream) he ate was mind-blowing.

The extra information you give the reader in your parentheses can be a fragment (like above) or an entire sentence.  If it is an entire sentence embedded within a larger sentence, you normally don’t capitalize the first word and the only applicable ending punctuation is a question mark or exclamation point.  If the parenthetical sentence would end with a period, you don’t need to bother with it.

  • Corey wanted to blast off into space (intergalactic travel had become common in 2096) with a donut in his hand.
  • Corey looked at the dagger in his chest (how did that get there?) but didn’t stop crocheting.

If your parenthetical bit is separate sentence (not smashed in the middle of another sentence) you have some leeway with punctuation and capitalization.  This leeway is your authorial power to shape words; wield it with gusto!

  • Correct:  Corey slayed zombies. (It took him three hours.)
  • Also Correct:  Corey slayed zombies (it took him three hours).

You can see in the above examples you get a slightly different feeling from both.  They are both good to go (according to the somewhat contradictory grammar books I own).

princess bride.jpgUse parentheses to introduce acronyms.  Only do this if you are going to use the acronym more than once in the work.   

  • Rodents of Unusual Size (ROUS) were introduced in The Princess Bride while Wesley and Princess Buttercup were in the Fire Swamp.

After you introduce the acronym, you can start using it without the parenthetical enclosure.

  • Rodents Of Unusual Size (ROUS) were introduced in The Princess Bride while Wesley and Princess Buttercup were in the Fire Swamp. Wesley stated he didn’t believe they existed.  Two seconds later a ROUS jumped on him.

Hate using the colon to list stuff?  Use parentheses instead! 

  • Corey’s plan was to (1) gather all the blunt objects in the house, (2) put on as much protective clothing as he could wear, and (3) begin slaying the zombie horde.

Do numbers bore you?  You can use letters too.

  • Heather gave Corey a shopping list that included (a) diapers, (b) baby wipes, (c) baby food, and (d) twelve boxes of shotgun shells.
[Note:  There was another example here.  Swing down to the comments and read Thomas Weaver’s comment (The Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom).  He pointed out an issue we will resolve another day.  Thanks for setting this rambling man straight Thomas.  I’m always happy when readers/editors are able to contribute and correct my errors!]    

Teaching_punctuation,_by_J._W._Orr.pngA common confusion is punctuation within parentheses.  Can you use it?  How?  Does the parenthetical sentence have to be complete to use punctuation?  

The best explanation I have found that provided corresponding examples comes from June Casagrande’s book, The best punctuation book, period.  This is a solid book on punctuation if you are looking for one.

“A question mark or exclamation point can come before or after a closing parenthesis, depending on whether it modified the whole sentence or the parenthetical alone” (p. 126).  The following examples come from the same page and they are all acceptable uses.  I admit some of them feel weird, but hey, we’re talking rules not style.

  • Did you know they canceled the parade (due to the weather forecast)?
  • They canceled the parade (can you believe it?).
  • They canceled the parade (darn rain!).
  • They canceled the darn parade (due to rain)!

Extra resources and books I like for punctuation.

Discussing Grammar.jpgThat’s a wrap for today.  I didn’t get into the technical mumbo-jumbo (referencing numbers, math, etc.) of parentheses,  I instead focused on the most common uses I see in everyday writing.  If you do have a technical question feel free to ask in the comment section.  If I don’t have the answer (it happens) there are some awesome folks here that probably do.

Did I screw something up?  Let me know so I can get it fixed!  You will be given grammar points and I will link you into the article.  I will also mail you a single strand of baby Thor’s hair, which is a powerful relic used for inter-dimensional travel.  Do you use parentheses in your writing?  If so, in what forms (personal correspondence, blog, fiction, non-fiction)?  I’d be curious to know.  Whew.  Another grammar post down.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Semi-Confusing Semicolons

Many writers avoid semicolons, with the exception of using them to make winking smiley faces.  Is it any wonder?  After all, the thing looks like a colon and a comma got drunk and had a baby.

I wouldn’t be writing about semicolons today, but I have received a couple emails inquiring about them (which was random, but very flattering).  I thought I would take a crack at explaining the usage here for me to reference in the future.

scott bell quote.jpg

Note*  There are more uses for semicolons than what I will cover today, but these examples address the specific questions I was asked.  Semicolons can be confusing enough without me dumping out 1000+ words.

semicolon.pngFor me, it was a long time before I ever understood what the heck a semicolon did.  It seemed every time I saw one used in writing, a period could have worked just as well.  However, the semi-colon does have a use.  Let’s talk about it.

Let’s snag a definition to work from.  The Chicago Manual of Style states, “In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would” (p. 325).

When I read definitions like these it just makes me more confused.  Let’s break it down and explain the parts and pieces.  After all, some of us may be murky about what independent clauses and conjunctions are.

First, an independent clause is just a fancy pants way of saying a sentence.  In a nutshell, this is saying a semicolon connects two sentences together that could both stand on their own two feet.  So yes, you could use a period instead.  But what the period can’t do is make the two sentences join and emphasis one another.  That’s the job of the semicolon.

The definition also mentioned the semicolon could only be used if the two independent clauses (sentences) were not joined by a conjunction.  Conjunctions are just words used to connect sentences together (and, but, or, yet, so, and the list goes on).

example graphic.pngHere is a very basic example of a conjunction.  “My name is Corey, and I write blogs.”  The conjunction, “and,” combines two sentences (My name is Corey.  I write blogs).

If you still aren’t clear on conjunctions, the Grammarly Handbook is a free resource with a huge amount of grammar tips and tools.  Here is a link to their material on conjunctions.

The Elements of Style offers three great examples we can look at to link everything we just talked about together.

Example 1 uses semicolons to combine two sentences and create one thought.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.

Example 2 uses a period to break sentences into two separate thoughts.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining.  They are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five.  We cannot reach town before dark.

Example 3 uses conjunctions to join the two sentences.

Mary Shelley’s works are entertaining, for they are full of engaging ideas.
It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.

grammarThere is a different feeling in each of these examples.  It is especially noticeable if you read the examples aloud.  The semicolon pulls the sentences together, the period splits them with a hard stop, and the conjunction joins them while slowing the pace.

Semicolons also find use when listing a series of items where a comma is used for each item.  Take this sentence for example, “The fantasy genre includes Lord of the Rings, The Dark Elf Trilogy, and Dragonriders of Pern.”  If I wanted to provide an example of a character from each of these books to help the reader recognize the titles, then I could use semicolons.

Example:  The fantasy genre includes Lord of the Rings, with Frodo; The Dark Elf Series, with Drizzt; and Dragonriders of Pern, with F’nor.

Probably the most common error I see regarding semicolons is using them to list items.  For this you would want to unleash the full colon, none of the watered down semi-colon nonsense.

uncle sam grammar.pngExample: Corey thought about all he would eat after posting this blog: pizza, ice cream, homemade ramen, and egg rolls. [A big thank you to Thomas Weaver for finding a mistake in this example and helping me correct it.  Check the comments section to see the blunder in its natural habitat.]

That’s as far as we go today.  Hopefully this helped.  Personally, I rarely use semicolons in my writing.  If I do, I have to stop and think about whether it is proper or not.  When I edit, I typically do a triple-take to make sure it’s correct.  Trust me, I have the pages on semicolons earmarked in my style guides 😉

Did I screw this up?  Do you have a better way of explaining it?  Do you use semicolons very often?  My skin is thicker than an elephants so don’t be afraid to correct my blunders or offer additional insights.  This is a daily blog post after all, and I tend to write them hastily.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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