Parenthetically

by Neil Fein

A teacher of mine in grade school once taught me that, if you have to say something in brackets, why, it can’t be all that important; you can just pull it out entirely. You should save the reader the trouble of slogging through your unimportant thoughts. While their overuse will render your writing choppy and clumsy, the parenthesis—that’s “bracket” to those of you in the U.K.—is a very noble glyph.

Parentheses have a bad rep. Their overuse often signals that one is reading the work of an inexperienced or immature writer—a writer unable to discipline their thoughts. The AP Stylebook, admittedly not a guardian of high culture, cautions against their use; they are also seen in the Johnson on Language columns in the Economist, usually but not always used well.

The best use of the parentheses is when you want to tell a reader that you have some background they’d probably enjoy reading about, but hold that thought, we’re coming back to the original thread. (We’re just waiting for it to come around, is what we’re doing.) Using them at the end of a paragraph seldom works well; you can just put them there as a separate sentence.

(However, it is possible to have a parenthetical paragraph. This one is being whispered in your ear.)

Getting back to the topic at hand:

When editing, I almost never introduce parentheses into the work of a client, in part because writers are a little bit afraid of them. (Also because it would change someone’s voice, and that’s not my job.) The Elements of Typographic Style points out that parentheses were popular in the Baroque era, and then again in the nineteenth century. However, em dashes, frequently used when parentheses would be a better choice, are the “in” punctuation mark now, and have been for nearly half a century. Parentheses can be used well, and there are situations where no other punctuation will quite do.

When thinking back on essays I’ve written, my favorite ones almost always involved the need to page through my library for examples of whatever point I’m making that day. This evening, I found elegant uses of parentheses in several volumes. Let’s start with some history-flavored fiction:

[General Washington] had not done well farming despite all sorts of theories about river mud being the best of manures (it is not), and the invention of a plough (shades of Jefferson!) which proved to be so heavy that two horses could not budge it even in moist earth.

Gore Vidal is, as a rule, not particularly fond of parenthetical remarks, but he uses them often and to good effect in his novel Burr. This story’s narrator is an opinionated man, and he seems unable to keep his thoughts out of his accounting of the events of 1833–1840. The remarks in these quotes would read much differently if preceded and trailed by other punctuation—say, commas or em dashes. Excluding these remarks would do the narrative a disservice. As the author says in his afterword:

Why a historical novel, and not a history? To me, the attraction of the historical novel is that one can be as meticulous (or as careless!) as the historian and yet reserve the right not only to rearrange events but, most important, to attribute motive—something the conscientious historian or biographer ought never to do.

Attributing motive, really a roundabout way of injecting opinion, from the writer’s point of view, is something that Mr. Vidal obviously does with relish.

My next example is from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where the character Wednesday tells us the story of the fiddle game, typically a two-man grift:

“Mine host puts the fiddle in its case on the counter, and Abraham takes it like a mother cradling her child. ‘Tell me,’ says the host (with the engraved card of a man who’ll pay fifty thousand dollars, good cash money, burning in his inside breast pocket), ‘how much is a fiddle like this worth? For my niece has a yearning on her to play the fiddle, and it’s her birthday coming up in a week or so.’”

Even stripped of context, Wednesday’s injection of opinion is clear. You can almost hear the speaker’s hushed tones starting with the words with the engraved card.

I was surprised to find an excellent use of parentheses in the work of Ray Bradbury:

The thing that bothered William Peterson most was Shakespeare and Plato, and Aristotle, and Johnathan Swift and William Faulkner, and the poems of, well, Robert Frost, perhaps, and John Dunne and Robert Herrick. All of these, mind you, tossed into the Bonfire. After that, he thought of bits of kindling (for that’s what they would become), he thought of the massive Michelangelo sculptures and El Greco and Renoir and so on. For tomorrow they would all be dead…

This is taken from the story “Bonfire”; I found this excerpt in the author’s forward to his classic Fahrenheit 451, to which the story is a clear predecessor. Again, the use of other punctuation wouldn’t have worked as well as the parentheses did. Used sparingly, the parentheses is, in essence, an embedded footnote, but unlike footnotes, you can use parentheses in fiction.

When considering using parentheses, ask yourself if what you want to write is necessary at this point in the story to achieve your goals. (You do have goals in your writing, yes?) If it is needed, and em dashes, commas, or other punctuation won’t do, the parentheses might be the proper tool.

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