Today's lesson: Parentheticals, Ellipses, and Brackets
Although there are different types of parentheticals, there are also a few different ways to make them. Commas are the standard, although m-dashes and actual parentheses are also acceptable in moderation. So, how do you decide when it is appropriate to veer from the standard?
M-dashes are two dashes placed side-by-side between words (--); if your word processor’s auto-format function is on, this will typically format into one long dash (—). M-dashes are perfect for the parenthetical that needs an extra dramatic flair. Ideally, one uses them the same way one would use commas, basically offsetting nonrestrictive relative clauses, with an opening and closing parenthetical. Nonrestrictive relative clauses contain information that is not necessary to the sentence but adds important details. For example:
The painting, which had taken her a month to complete, was destroyed in the flood.
The painting—which had taken her a month to complete—was destroyed in the flood.
Similarly, if the information comes as an aside, parentheses are also acceptable:
The painting (which had taken her a month to complete) was destroyed in the flood.
However, if the information is a necessary aspect to the sentence, a comma is not appropriate. For example:
The painting that had taken her a month to complete was destroyed in the flood. (Here, “that had taken her a month to complete” helps to define that specific painting and therefore is restrictive and does not take commas.)
M-dashes are also used in screenplays to indicate a slight, dramatic pause in dialogue. As per industry standard, they are never auto-formatted, but they do contain spaces between them and the words on either side. Here is an example:
Good God -- what the hell happened here?
Used sparingly, one can use m-dashes similarly in prose. They also serve, both in screenplays and prose, to indicate where dialogue is being cut off abruptly.
A different type of parenthetical called an appositive as a nominal restatement of the noun it precedes. This one trips up many writers, as it seems natural to create parentheticals out of all nominal restatements. Here’s the simple rule: if the restatement describes the preceding noun in its entirety, it’s an appositive and therefore a parenthetical. If it describes a partial set, it is not an appositive and therefore not a parenthetical. For example:
Tom’s only novel, The Story, is an excellent read. (This is an appositive since Tom has only written one novel and The Story restates “novel” in its entirety, so you must use commas here.)
Poe’s poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” are very chilling. (This is not an appositive since Poe has written more than just these two poems, so you must not use commas here.)
The above parentheticals raise another rule issue, which is knowing when it is appropriate to place the period inside or outside a set of parentheses. Here’s the simple rule: if you have a full and complete sentence within the parentheses, capitalize the first word and place the period on the inside; if you have an incomplete sentence that modifies a main clause as an aside, do not capitalize the first word and place the period on the outside. The above serves as examples of the former. Following is an example of the latter:
I love Poe’s poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (although I know some people find them to be a bit too chilling).
Much like parentheticals, ellipses seem fairly self-explanatory: they offer a pause or slight shift in idea where it is not appropriate to split via a period or semicolon. They also serve to show dialogue that trails off (but not dialogue that is abruptly cut off). As far as formatting goes, auto-format will cluster an ellipsis into a single unit. Depending upon where one’s writing is intended, this is not always acceptable. For example, many styles and publishers will require spaces between each of the periods. Either way, it is generally accepted practice to provide a space before and after an ellipsis.
Regardless of any other formatting rules, always use three periods—unless you’re using the ellipsis to trail off the end of a sentence. In this case, you always want to use four periods, with no space between the first period and the last word. For example:
“I’m sorry . . . I just don’t know what to say.”
“I’m sorry. . . .”
Brackets and parentheses are not interchangeable, although one does want to use brackets on the rare occasion that one would want parentheses within parentheses—in which case the brackets would serve as the innermost set of parentheses.
The most common use for brackets is adding necessary information within quoted, referenced text, typically to replace a pronoun with a proper noun for clarification. Although some will add the bracketed information in addition to the pronoun or otherwise vague text, most formats will require that the brackets actually replace said information. For example, let’s say I’m quoting a reference that uses “he” but I want to make sure those reading my work know I’m talking about Poe:
“He was an exceptional storyteller and poet.”
“[Poe] was an exceptional storyteller and poet.”
Similarly, you can use brackets to alter a quoted word in order to make it fit a lead-in sentence. Let’s say you want to quote the following sentence, “He was an exceptional storyteller and poet,” but you want to use a lead-in sentence. You would want to use brackets to change the capitalization: According to the Generic Almanac, “[h]e was an exceptional storyteller and poet.” You can also use this technique to ensure verb tense agreement within your text. Let’s say you’re writing a piece that is entirely in present tense (such as a paper in MLA style). You might want to change “was” to “is,” and in that case, brackets are also appropriate.
Brackets are also important for quoting material that contains mistakes, ensuring your readers understand said mistakes are those of their quoted authors and not yours. By adding “[sic],” which stands for sic erat scriptum, or “thus was it written,” directly after the mistake, you can ensure your readers understand that you have chosen to keep the quote intact (instead of correcting the misspelled or misused word in brackets), intentionally leaving in the mistake. For example:
According to Generic Almanac, “Rose’s [sic] are the prettiest of all flowers.”
Of course, you can always choose to correct the quote, in which case you’ll want to use brackets as well: “[Roses] are the prettiest of all flowers.”
While you might have readers who also do not know the rules, there is always a chance that editors, agents, or reviewers reading your work will know them (and will judge your work accordingly). If you take the time to know and understand these rules, your writing will be sharper and you will be able to present it to the world with confidence and skill.
Until next time, my pretties! (Insert evil cackle.)