Via this column, we’ll explore one grammar rule each week. If you have a grammar question you’d like me to address, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to answer it.
President’s Day is a holiday that might just go totally unnoticed if people didn’t get the day off from work or school. (Actually, many people used to get two days off, one day for George Washington’s birthday and one day for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.) But this year, we’ll make Georgie and Abe feel special by including details about their lives while learning the rules of parentheses.
Parentheses are highly visible punctuation, and they should be used sparingly to add incidental or additional details. Parenthetical information should have no structural impact on the rest of the sentence; the parts that come before or after the parenthesized element should be treated as if they weren’t there, grammatically and logically.
A parenthesized element in a sentence can be a single word:
- George and Abe love sharing a holiday (not).
- Abe used to wrestle (professionally).
Or a parenthesized element can be a sentence fragment:
- Abe built a log cabin (out of logs).
- George and his men crossed the Delaware River and surprised Hessian forces (since it was Christmas Eve).
There can also be more than one parenthesized element in a single sentence:
- George chopped down a cherry tree (or is that just a tall tale?) when he was a kid (a long time ago).
Parentheses can enclose an entire sentence or sentences (just look at the opening paragraph of this post), or even entire paragraphs. Here are all of the rules summed up in one example:
George and Abe still celebrate their birthdays every year by inviting all of the former presidents to a (ghost) party at George’s house in Virginia. (They never invite Nixon though, because he always used to try to break into George’s bedroom to snoop around.) All of the former presidents leave a gift for both George and Abe (since they’re incapable of sharing anything after being forced to share a party) at the gift table, and then everyone plays musical chairs for a few hours.
(Musical chairs actually hadn’t been invented yet in George or Abe’s era, but a few of the more “modern” presidents taught them how to play a few years ago, and now they refuse to play any other game. George’s favorite song is “Yankee Doodle,” which drives everyone else a bit insane, and Abe loves opera music, which isn’t very good for musical chairs. But it is their birthday party, after all, so no one complains too much.)
After a tiring number of rounds of musical chairs, all of the presidents head to the bar to drink away their headaches…
Parentheses can also be used to set off details:
- London is approximately 5,600 kilometers (about 3,500 miles) away from New York.
- Lincoln (1809-1865) was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
- One leading expert (Howard, 1907) believes that Andrew Johnson might have been involved in Lincoln’s assassination.
- The George Washington University (GWU) was named after our first president.
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.