I just discovered a wonderful article about overusing parentheses. I have seen more parentheses in student writing this year than I ever remember. Mark Twain, who is credited with a great many statements he did not actually say, reportedly felt about parentheses as I do: “A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it.” Anyone who has read much Twain must admit that the quote does sound like something he would say.

Stated simply, parentheses are a sign that the writer didn’t think enough about what he wanted to say to be able to write without them. I have had to mark out so many this year that I finally decided to research whether anyone else felt as I do. Lo and behold, at least two people do.

Parentheses are like speed bumps, making a choppy experience for the reader. Speed bumps at least are there for a noble purpose. Not so with parentheses. They are rarely needed; usually commas will suffice. If a comma won’t do, then the writer needs to spend more time thinking of a clear, uncluttered, and stylish way to say whatever it is, instead of annoying the reader with parentheses.

Generally, formal writing only requires two uses of parentheses. One is to identify an official abbreviation, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The other is an in-text citation of a source, such as is required by MLA in academic writing.

Other than that, parentheses should almost always be avoided in formal writing. They might be painless and convenient for the writer, but as editor and author William Zinsser notes, “Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.”

Enjoy the article! Writing Tip: Do You Overuse Parentheses?

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