- 1) Rounded brackets
- 2) Square brackets
1) Rounded brackets
Rounded brackets are used to set off parenthetical elements that are more far removed from the meaning, or direction, of the rest of the sentence than commas or dashes are.
A lot of the instances of rounded brackets in formal writing tend to be in specific circumstances. Let’s look at some of these first.
World War 2 (WW2) took place between 1939 to 1945.
1.2 Technical details
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal endemic to eastern Australia.
1.3 Clarifications when the reader might not understand the word
Ornithorhynchus anatinus (the platypus) is a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal endemic to eastern Australia.
1.4 Foreign language words
The common name ‘platypus’ is the latinisation of the Greek word πλατύπους (platupous), ‘flat-footed’,from πλατύς (platus), ‘broad, wide, flat’ and πούς (pous), ‘foot’.
The rounded bracket (see page 54) is the best punctuation mark to use in this example.
The recent findings on the evolution of the platypus (Smith et al., 2015) support my theory.
The rounded bracket can also be used to humorous effect. For example, take the following ironic quote from Joseph Heller’s Something Happened:
We are no longer close enough for honest conversation (but we are close enough for sexual intercourse).
The above could have used a comma, or a dash, but the use of the rounded bracket subtly gives it that extra cutting edge that works so well to enhance the timing of the ironic afterthought.
1.7 To show plurality
Round brackets can also be used to show that something may, or may not, be plural. For example:
Tick the following statement(s) that refer to you.
This is the sort of thing we might see in a questionnaire followed by a series of statements to tick. It is recognising that there might be one, or more, statements that refer to us.
1.8 When not to use the rounded bracket
While it can often be a style choice whether to use a comma, dash or bracket, there are some circumstances where it is very unusual. One is with the group of conjunctive adverbs (e.g., consequently, finally, furthermore, moreover, however, nevertheless, therefore). For example:
I will (however) be performing at the concert tomorrow.
In most cases a comma would be used here, probably because these conjunctive adverbs are too much a part of the direct meaning of the sentence, rather than the supplementary information usually found in brackets. With commas we get:
I will, however, be performing at the concert tomorrow.
We could also uses dashes if we wanted to make the ‘however’ stand out strong, as in:
I will – however – be performing at the concert tomorrow.
2) Square brackets
Square brackets are used when a comment, criticism, correction, direction or other element which is separate from the sentence has been added by someone other than the original writer – for example an editor, or someone quoting the original writer.
This happens in a number of different occasions:
2.1 To mark or correct an error in the text
A common way to mark an error in the text is to use the word ‘sic’ (which means ‘thus it was written’) in square brackets next to the error in the text. This lets the reader know that the writer recognises the error, but has left it this way so as to quote completely accurately. An example of this is as follows:
John Smith wrote: ‘I am against military intervention in this insance [sic].’
Here the word ‘instance’ is misspelled, and this is signified by ‘[sic]’.
An example of an error being corrected in the text with square brackets is:
World War 1 started in 1913 [1914 is the correct date] and finished in 1918.
This is the sort of thing one might see when getting work back from an editor.
2.2 To mark an editorial comment, addition or explanation
Editors might also use the square bracket to add comments, additions or explanations. For example:
Brazil has the biggest economy [GDP] in South America.
Here the square bracketed ‘[GDP]’ is letting us know that the economy is being measured by the Gross Domestic Product method, rather that one of the many other metrics.
2.3 To enclose parenthesis inside round brackets
If we want to use a bracketed statement inside a bracketed statement we can use square brackets. For example:
Brazil has the largest economy in South America (based on Gross Domestic Product [GDP] figures).
This saves us from having rounded brackets inside rounded brackets, which could get confusing.
That is all for brackets; let’s look at inverted commas next.
NEXT: 9) Inverted commas