When & How to Use Parentheses Correctly (With Examples)

Parentheses are an important type of punctuation mark. Every writer needs to know the basic guidelines for using parentheses. Discover when to use parentheses and review examples that illustrate proper usage so you can learn how to use parentheses correctly.

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When to Use Parentheses: Explanations & Examples

Parentheses are always used in pairs (). The most basic rule for parentheses is that they can be used to offset a group of non-essential words that contribute additional details or other information that will be helpful to readers. They are also sometimes used in conjunction with numerals, acronyms or academic citations.

Parentheses With Parenthetical Expressions

Parentheses marks can be used when a sentence includes a parenthetical expression, which is a non-essential group of words added to it for clarity or emphasis.

  • I am making dinner (pot roast with potatoes and carrots) in the slow cooker.
  • She always brings her dog (that yappy little mutt) when she comes to visit.

Parentheses aren’t the only punctuation option for parenthetical expressions. You could choose to punctuate a parenthetical phrase within a sentence with commas or em dashes rather than parentheses.

Parentheses With Complete Sentences

In some cases, an entire sentence might be added to a paragraph within parentheses. Sentences presented like this can function like a parenthetical phrase, except they are standalone sentences. They are also used in fiction to let readers know what a character is thinking,

  • This month’s sales figures are sure to wow you. (Chances are, you’ll be really impressed.)
  • Sure, I can meet you on Tuesday at 1 p.m. (I wonder if she’ll really show up this time.)

When a complete sentence is included within parentheses, all of that sentence's punctuation should be inside the parentheses. This includes the period at the end of the sentence.

Parentheses at the End of a Sentence

You may sometimes find yourself needing to include a few words or a number inside parentheses marks at the end of a sentence. This is commonly done to clarify a general term that relates to an amount of money or to set a certain tone in dialogue.

  • I got a great deal on a used camper (just $500).
  • I don’t believe she’s telling the truth (she never does).

When using parentheses in this way, it’s important to place the period outside of the parentheses, so it is clear where the full sentence ends.

Extra Punctuation Needed in Parentheses

A particularly tricky situation arises when you have a parenthetical phrase within a sentence that requires its own punctuation separate from the end of the sentence. This often occurs when a writer is trying to convey sarcasm or humor in the text.

  • I’m sure you’ll be there on time (won’t you?).
  • I’ll do exactly what you have asked (or will I?).

If a parenthetical phrase is intended to come across as a question, then a question mark should be placed inside the parentheses. However, this does not serve as an ending to the actual sentence, even if the parentheses mark is the last character. There still needs to be a period at the end — outside of the parentheses — to bring the sentence to a close.

Abbreviations With Periods in Parentheses

Under most circumstances, you would never use a period inside parentheses, unless the text within them is a complete sentence. However, English grammar is filled with exceptions. Abbreviations are the exception to this rule.

  • We will get started very early (5:30 a.m.) so we can finish before it gets too hot.
  • Each team needs to be represented at the safety meeting (not just your dept.).

Any time a parenthetical expression includes an abbreviation that requires one or more periods, then there will have to be periods within parentheses marks. Of course, in cases where the abbreviation is a shortened version of a word, you could simply choose to spell out the word in its entirety.

Parentheses With Numerals

When including the equivalent of a numbered list within a sentence, you are creating what is referred to as a horizontal (across) list. With this type of numbered list, you should put parentheses around each numeral.

  • This recipe requires three ingredients: (1) cucumbers, (2) vinegar and (3) salt.
  • I will be visiting three different Alabama cities, in order from north to south: (1) Huntsville, (2) Birmingham and (2) Montgomery.

The example above does not use an Oxford comma. If you are writing for a company that prefers that usage, then you would insert a comma after all of the listed cities except the last one. There is no need to use parentheses with a vertical (up and down) list. If you are listing more than four items, a vertical list would be easier for your readers to follow.

Parentheses With Acronyms

Any time you use an acronym in your writing, it’s critical to specify what the acronym stands for the first time it is mentioned. This is done by spelling out all of the words immediately before the acronym, which needs to be in parentheses.

  • We have reviewed Department of Labor (DOL) guidance regarding how this job should be classified. Until the DOL rules change, this is how we’ll classify it.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated funds to help people recover from the disaster. A FEMA representative will visit soon.

Once you have written the full term and specified the acronym one time in a document, further instances of the acronym in the same document do not require parentheses.

Parentheses With Source Citations

If you are doing academic writing, you will likely need to use parentheses for in-text citations. This should be done in a manner consistent with the particular style guide required by your instructor or the scholarly journal or conference to which you plan to submit your work.

  • For long quotes, American Psychological Association (APA) style requires the author’s name, the year and the page number (White, 2020, p. 45).
  • In Modern Language Association (MLA) style, long quotes are treated differently. The author’s name and page number go in parentheses, with no comma (White 45).

Any time you are working on a research paper, it’s critical to follow the exact rules of the specified style you need to use. There are very particular requirements for different types of citations and bibliography formats specific to each style.

Making the Most of Parentheses

Now that you have explored parentheses examples and know when and how to use parentheses correctly, you can start incorporating them into your writing as appropriate. While it’s important not to overdo it with these punctuation marks, they definitely have a place in quality writing. If you’re ready to expand your punctuation expertise beyond parentheses, move on to learning how to use brackets in grammar.

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