Brackets and Braces and Parentheses – Oh My! (How & When to Use)

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Have you ever wondering what all those symbols are for on your keyboard? If you are sitting in front of a desktop computer, you are most likely looking at what’s known as a Qwerty keyboard, which is simply a standard English keyboard that has the standard layout of letters, numbers, and punctuation, including braces, brackets, and parenthesis.

Generally, braces, brackets, and parenthesis are used to set off additional or optional information in sentences. The writer may need to add words to clarify meaning, make the sentence read more clearly, or make a comment or correction to quoted material. For informal writing, you might have seen them used interchangeably. However, in more formal writing, such as academic writing, each symbol has a specific usage for specific situations, in specific fields of research.

Brackets  

There are two types of brackets you might use in an academic paper: Square [ ] and Angle < >

Square [ ]

In academic writing, square brackets have many uses. When the writer feels the need to add clarifying information, to provide context, or to correct printed mistakes, square brackets are used to indicate the change in the original text.

In the example below, square brackets are used to add context or clarify meaning:

Mary Constance, in an essay on extraterrestrials, states, “Some people [who have UFO experiences] may have very clear, vivid memories of their captivity” (98).

In this quote, “Some people” is taken out of context, so the additional information, “who have UFO experiences” is added for clarification so that the read knows exactly who some people are.

Square brackets are also commonly used by writers who feel the need to italicize certain words for emphasis:

Researchers at the Institute of Technology walked out of the presentation, saying they were extremely [emphasis added] disturbed by the images.

The brackets above indicate to the reader that the italics that are emphasizing “extremely” have been added by the writer, and not the original author.

When quoting sources, it’s actually not uncommon to find an error in the original material. However, the writer cannot simply correct the error, but must transcribe it exactly as is with the error, inserting the word “sic,” a Latin term meaning “thus” or “so,” enclosed in square brackets. The use of sic indicates the error is not the writer’s, but from the original text:

Dr. Casey says of his research, “I strongly believe that animal-to-human tansplantation [sic] is widely underutilized in the US.”

Sic immediately follows the misspelled word above.

Angle < >

In MLA, a URL or web address is no longer required on the Works Cited, but if requested by the instructor or if it’s needed to locate the original source, you’ll need to include it in your citation. If you need to include one on your Works Cited, place it in angle brackets. Because a URL may contain letters, numbers, and punctuation, placing it in angle brackets makes it much easier for the reader to ascertain where the URL begins and ends:

Walker, Janice R. “Columbia Online Style: MLA-Style Citations of Electronic Sources.” 1.2, Nov. 1997. 10. Dec. 1997 <http://www.cas.usf.edu/english/walker/mla.html&gt;.

Braces { }

You’ll find braces, also known as curly brackets, on the same key as square brackets on your computer. In formal writing, braces have limited use in MLA and APA writing. You might have seen braces used in music or poetry, or even on an SAT or GRE exam. They are used to set off items in a set to show they are a unit, as in the example below:

Equal Choices: {red, blue, green}

Numbers: E= {3, 6, 9, 12, 15}

Music: [ {c, e, g} {e, g, c2} {g, c2, e2} ]

Note that in the music example, there are 3 sets of items, so the braces separate each set. Then the entire 3 sets are enclosed in square brackets, which serves to “hold” the 3 sets of items that are in braces.

Braces are also used in mathematics, logic, and linguistics to set off groups of numbers, letters, or items in a set. Braces are often used in computer programming to show what should be contained within the same lines.

Parenthesis ( )

Most everyone knows what parentheses are and has used them at some point in their writing. Of the three, parentheses are the most commonly used punctuation in formal and informal writing. Parentheses are most commonly used to enclose an explanation or afterthought which relates to the main message of the sentence. The use of parentheses is often a judgment call. If you feel incorporating an explanation might interrupt the flow of the sentence, place the information inside parentheses.

Jason B. has been ticketed three times for drunk driving, though he still holds a driver’s license (all three tickets were in school zones).

Starlight Bakery chain (in both North America and Canada) have reported a 220% increase requests for gluten-free products since 2010.

Use a comma between coordinate adjectives (adjectives that are equal and reversible).

In creative writing, parentheses are used as a literary device that separates words that the narrator might feel are secret, like an aside or internal thought:

Jessie (truant and a runaway) turned sixteen in the youth center.

Monique (was that her name?) never looked up from the ticket counter.

Parentheses are the only punctuation used for in-text citations and Works Cited pages:

Brown says that no textbooks were discarded after the regulations were put in place (78).

Parentheses also are used to indicate the plural of a noun, as in the following example:

If anyone has any information about the person(s) who committed this crime, please call the sheriff’s office.

In the following section of the exam, circle the grammatical error(s) in each of the sentences.

(examples from http://www.writingsimplified.com/2009/04/how-and-when-to-use-parentheses.html).

Acronyms are enclosed in parenthesis as well:

The mission of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is to stop drunk driving.


When Both Brackets and Parentheses are Needed

In MLA, square brackets surrounded by parentheses indicate the level of subordination, as in the example below:

The sect known as the Jansenists (after Cornelius Jansen [1585-1638]) faced opposition from both the king and the pope.

 

In many instances of informal writing (and even formal writing), you might find that curly brackets and parenthesis are used interchangeably. When writing in academic situations, however, be sure and follow the guidelines for the citation style you are using, be it MLA, APA, AP, Chicago, or others. Each style has its own preferences, but some make no determination of how each kind of punctuation should be used. In that case, use whichever works best for your situation.

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