Parentheses ( ), Brackets [ ], & Braces { }

punctuation header
I was looking up ways to explain (in my Brush Up on Your Business Writing workbook) how these three different punctuation marks highlight information, and I realized I had NO idea when we are supposed to use braces. So I thought a quick review of these three might be helpful to others as well.

Parentheses ( ) are the most commonly used of these three pairs of marks, and they’re meant to show information that can be left out of a sentence without major loss of meaning. The extra information may be within a sentence or outside of it, but either way, it’s extra stuff.

For instance:

  • Karen (she’s my friend from grade school) will be coming to visit me in July!

The basic sentence is Karen will be coming to visit me in July. The description of her is extra; it’s nice to know, but not essential for sentence clarity.

  • Karen will be coming to visit me in July! (She’s my friend from grade school.)

Here, the extra sentence is written after the main one, and because it’s a complete sentence, it does need its first word capitalized and an end mark of punctuation.

For more on essential and nonessential information and using commas rather than only parentheses, click here.

Brackets [ ] are an editorial mark, meant to add a little information to an author’s original sentence that might not be totally clear. If we’re quoting an expert, we don’t get to rewrite the original work. But if we think some extra information would make it easier to understand, we can use brackets.

For instance:
If an original quote were “The teacher was the best anyone had ever seen!” we couldn’t just rewrite it and say we were quoting it. But we could use brackets to clarify which teacher was being mentioned: “The teacher [Bob Smith] was the best anyone had ever seen!”

Why not just use parentheses in that situation? Largely because enclosing the name that way could be seen as having been part of the original quote. The brackets are intended to show an addition (for clarity) to the original quote.

We also use brackets with the word “sic” inside them to show that we see a goof in the original work, but we’re quoting it anyway as it was written. (Sic comes from Latin and means so or thus; as it was written.)

For instance:
Fran’s T-shirt said, “When it rain’s [sic] it pours.”

One caveat is that most of us have a worldwide readership here on LI and beBee: we have to be really careful not to see errors of usage or spelling that are merely different from what is normal for us in our country. No language is 100% the same around the world; variations are always with us!

You’ll be glad to know that braces { } are usually used in mathematics and science, which means most of us won’t need to worry about them. And if you really want to know how to use them, you can always look them up as I did. The Internet is a wondrous thing.