June and the Parenthesis

Like the semicolon, the parenthesis is an early modern punctuation mark. It is not found in medieval manuscripts unless we count the diple as a parenthesis, but truly the diple is the forerunner of the quotation mark.

‘The parenthesis and the semi-colon,’ says Malcolm Beckwith Parkes in his history of Western punctuation, ‘reflect the needs of those who were accustomed to the habit of silent reading.’ We can also say that they reflect the world of the printed text. The true parentheses appeared with the Renaissance humanists, and the most loveable of them, Desiderius Erasmus, called parentheses ‘lunulae’ because their rounded form put him in mind of the crescent moon.

The first printed parentheses appeared in the 1470s, but the word ‘parenthesis’ had appeared in the Latin of the late Roman Empire. It was a word constructed, concocted we might say, from Greek elements: ‘para–en–thesis’. Those elements roughly translate as ‘beside-in-put’. From Late Latin, the word came into Medieval French and hence into Early Modern English. George Puttenham was among the first English writers to use the word. In 1580, he matched fancy Greek by fancy English and called the parenthesis the ‘insertour’. Like many of Puttenham’s coinage, ‘insertour’ did not take, but ‘parenthesis’ did.

The Oxford English Dictionary speaks of a parenthesis as a concept as much as a punctuation mark. It quotes from Great Expectations to show that Charles Dickens thought, very wittily, the same thing: ‘(“You listen to this,” said my sister to me, in a severe parenthesis).’ The parenthesis, says Oxford, is ‘an explanation, aside, or afterthought’. The parenthesis is a murmur from author to reader, a voice-to-camera as it were.

Oxford goes on to say that authorial asides are ‘usually marked off by brackets, dashes, or commas’. That grouping – ‘brackets, dashes, or commas’ – is significant in several ways. Like commas and nuns, parentheses ‘come in pairs’, and they can be considered a form of comma. Nonetheless, they generally have a function that makes them distinct from commas. The comma has already been discussed and the dash will be discussed, but it is worth repeating that modern punctuators, like medieval monks, use the same sign for different things and different signs for the same thing. Oxford, treating the parenthesis as a word group rather than a punctuation mark, is inclined to call the mark a ‘bracket’.

Parentheses/brackets come in several shapes: round, square, curly and angle. The most commonly used forms are the round and the square. The curly can be dealt with initially and briefly; the angle can be looked at leisurely and last. The curly bracket {also called a brace} is used in mathematics and computing but not much in non-technical prose. (Single braces find a use in poetry to link lines printed one above the other. In sheet music, braced lines are to be sung simultaneously. In verse, the braced lines are to be given a similar equivalence. The top line is superior to the bottom line to the eye only.)

Round parentheses have a special use in accounting: they identify negative amounts in a credit balance or a positive amounts in a debit balance. Square brackets have a number of special uses. In legal documents, they indicate a change in a quotation. In a witness statement, a defendant might be recorded as saying: ‘She did not come to my house’. In a third-person report of that statement, brackets indicate changes from the original: ‘The defendant said “[s]he did not come to [his] house”.’

Square brackets are also used to indicate that anomalies in a quotation arise from the language of the original not from errors on the part of the reporter. If the witness said, ‘They was there at the time’. A report might render that, ‘They was [sic] there on time’. The Latin ‘sic’, meaning ‘thus’, is inserted but made parenthetical by the brackets. The often self-righteous [sic] appears frequently enough outside legal documents. Square brackets are also used in quotations to provide editorial explanations of words or terms that need clarification: ‘The capital of Kazakhstan [Astana] is not the country’s largest city.’

British English prefers the general term ‘brackets’ to ‘parentheses’; however, some practitioners like to keep the name ‘parentheses’ for the round form and ‘brackets’ for the square form: (parentheses) v [brackets]. American style manuals are more strict on that issue than British ones. When writers nest one parenthesis inside another like Russian dolls, American manuals dictate the alternation of round and square, ‘so that the levels of subordination can be easily distinguished’. The American writes: “She was raised in Russia’s ‘Window on the West’ (St Petersburg [then called Leningrad]).” The Briton writes: ‘She was raised in Russia’s “Window on the West” (St Petersburg (then called Leningrad)).’

It is gauche to nest beyond two sets of parentheses in human language, but there need be no limit to nesting levels in machine language. An interesting case of parenthetical nesting arose with a language invented in the 1960s to be read with equal ease by humans and machines. That language was called Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), and it made use of angle brackets (also called ‘chevrons’) to solve a document problem. The problem was that multiple computer languages meant that computers could not handle any documents except ones produced on a computer that used the same program language.

SGML’s solution was to think of a document as having two elements: data (content) and metadata (instructions). The metadata (the instructions) tell a printer or a monitor how to output (print or display) the data (the content). On the page or the screen, a document looks like this.


2015 is the year of punctuation for the English Project, prompted by its being 500 years since the death of Aldus Pius Manutius.

In SGML, the document looks like this:

<!DOCTYPE article PUBLIC "-//OASIS//DTD DocBook V3.1//EN"><article> <sect1 id="introduction"><title> PUNCTUATING 2015</title> <para> 2015 is the year of punctuation for the English Project, prompted by its being 500 years since the death of Aldus Pius Manutius. </para> </sect1></article>

SGML puts the machine instructions right in among the human words and numbers. However, SGML separates human language from machine language by placing the printer instructions inside parentheses. The machine instructions are a series of remarks muttered to the printer: <Start an article.> <Put the next bit in capitals and centre as a title.> <Make a new paragraph.> <End the paragraph.> <End the article.>.

SGML and its chevron mutterings may be IBM’s greatest contribution to computing. The document you are reading now is written in the SGML that Bill Gates adapted for Microsoft Word and in the SGML that Tim Berners-Lee adapted for the World Wide Web. SGML-encoded military manuals saved the US Navy so much weight in the 1970s that it was able to add an additional fighter plane to aircraft carriers. Because it is so much used for digitally stored governmental documents worldwide, SGML encodes more language than any other software.

Email addresses are often put in SGML chevrons: <someone@somemail.com>. Unless precautions are taken, those chevrons will disappear and the email address will turn blue. That happens in response to instructions whispered in the parentheses. (Digital printing of books about SGML raises tricky problems.)

Chevrons were chosen for SGML because they are little used elsewhere. They are remarkable not only for that latest role; they are also remarkable for their earliest role. Chevrons were the very first kind of parentheses used in English texts. Between the fifteenth and the twentieth century, English writers largely overlooked chevrons. However, they were not overlooked by the French. They use double chevrons as quotations marks everyday to this very day, but quotation marks must wait until November for English Project treatment.


Next Month’s Punctuation Mark: In July, the English Project will tell the story of the Hyphen.




Adams, Kenneth A., Drafting Without Punctuation? Adams Drafting: www.adamsdrafting.com, 2015.

Armstrong, Adrian, & Quainton, Malcolm eds. Book and Text in France, 1400-1600: Poetry on the Page, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007, page 178.

Barker, Nicolas, Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script and Type in the Fifteenth Century, Fordham University Press, New York, 1992, pages 111-16.

Bullough, D. A, Alcuin [Albinus, Flaccus] (c.740–804), Abbot of St Martin's, Tours, and Royal Adviser, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Butcher, Janet, Copy-Editing: The Cambridge Handbook, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pages 156-57 and passim.

Butterfield, Jeremy, ed., Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 2015, pages 49-50, 563.

Cajori, Florian, A History of Mathematical Notations, (2 vols.) The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, 1928, page 1: 312.

Chauvier, J. H. A., Treatise on Punctuation, Translated from the French by J. B. Huntington, Simpkin, Marshall & Company, London, 1849, pages 2-3, 17-18, 26, 60.

Cook, Vivian, Frequencies of Punctuation Marks, Punctuation: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations, T. B. Peterson, Philadelphia 1861. See page 1:13.

Dictionary.com, Oblique Stroke, Dictionary.com: dictionary.reference.com.

Freedman, Adam, Clause and Effect, New York Times (16 December 2007): www.nytimes.com.

Gibaldi, Joseph, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, The Modern Language Association, New York, 1999, pages 51-56, 78.

Guberman, Ross, Million Dollar Commas, Legal Writing Pro (2007): www.legalwritingpro.com.

Heyward, Anna, Ugly, Ugly as a Tick on a Dog's Belly, Meanjin (27 December 2014): http://meanjin.com.au/articles.

Homans, Isaac S., The Coin Book, J. A. Lippincott, Philadelphia 1872, page 3.

Horngren, Charles, Walter Harrison, Suzanne Oliver, Peter Best, David Fraser, & Rebecca Tan, Financial Accounting, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest 2013, page 28.

Latham, Alison, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 40.

Lucas, Bill & Mulvey, Christopher, The History of the English Language in 100 Places, Robert Hale, London, 2013, pages 81-83.

Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading, Viking, New York, 1996, pages 53-56.

Modern Humanities Research Association, The MHRA Style Guide, Modern Humanities Research Association, London, 2002, page 57.

Norris, Mary, Holy Writ: Learning to Love the House style, Extract from  Confessions of a Comma Queen, The New Yorker (23 February 2015): www.newyorker.com.

Norris, Mary, Quotes, Good Reads: www.goodreads.com.

Norris, Mary, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2015.

Norris, Mary, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2015. 

Oxford University Press, New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors, Oxford University Press, 2005, pages 67-72, 72-73, 83-84, 125.

Parkes, Malcolm Beckwith, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, Ashgate, Farnham, 1992, pages 4, 30, 36, 49, 51.

Puttenham, George, The Arte of English Poesie, Richard Puttenham ed. Edward Arber,  London: 1869, page 180.

Revolvy, Backslash, Revolvy: www.revolvy.com.

RIPE Network Coordination Centre, Understanding IP Addressing, Ripe (20 April 2014): https://www.ripe.net.

Rubinsky, Yuri, Foreword The SGML Handbook, by Charles F. Goldfarb, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1992, pages ix-xi.

Saenger, Paul, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, Stanford University Press, 2000, pages 16-17, 24.

Spears, Richard A., McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005.

Stein, Gertrude, Punctuation In Prose,  About Education: http://grammar.about.com. Stein’s lecture was first published in Lectures in America (Random House, New York),1935.

Truss, Lynne, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books, London  2003, page 161.

University of Chicago Press Staff, The Chicago Manual of Style, University of Chicago Press, 2010, pages 311-24, 200.