How to Use Brackets

Square brackets, curly brackets, parentheses, oh my!

Brackets and parentheses, like all forms of punctuation, have a specific function. Where there may not be space to fully elaborate a point — like in the title of a talk — they can be used to add in supplementary information, but crucially, they don’t change the meaning of the sentence. A sentence’s meaning is the sentence without the brackets. The Grammarist website informs us that “If the meaning of the sentence would be clear without the parenthetical remark, then parentheses are appropriate.” Sometimes people do mix up the two types of brackets and use them interchangeably, but the fundamental function is to supplement the initial sentence.

This form of punctuation lends itself well to communicating a nuance. So, if you’ve read a sentence this week with a set (or two) of brackets (see what I did there [using the brackets]) and then started seething, drooling, jiggling and wiggling, and frothing in outrage, it might be worth reading the sentence for a second time and doing another thought about what it is trying to say.

Indeed, sometimes there might be other clues indicating that the deduction you have deduced might have come down on the wrong side of town. A picture of a thing or a person adjacent to the malevolent, bracketed line can be a decent hint. Alternatively, there might be other sentences around to offer context, like an ‘About’ paragraph which can shed some light on those consonants and vowels cocooned in brackets.

Now, I am not droaning on here because I am a boring old pedant. I am a boring old pedant, but I am babbling in spite of that fact.

Reader, what I am about to tell you is confidential information, so I hope you can keep a secret. It must not leave these pages, but I feel obliged to warn you of something.

This week, there may be a talk which has a title that, that… uses brackets. I am warning you because it is important that you don’t misconstrue the meaning of the title. It will surprise you to learn that some rogues actually do this willfully, misquoting the sentence without the brackets to change the meaning of the sentence completely. Quelle Horreur!

If you want to look out for these yahoos, one identifying feature is that their catch-all term, ‘Orwellian.’ This is a pejorative term to describe things that they think the Socialist-cum-Anarchist-cum-Marxist Libertarian writer George Orwell foreshadowed (Orwell, interestingly enough, did warn about the manipulation of language).

So, there you have it, folks! Brackets and parentheses can be darn-tootin’ tricky things to get your head around. Try to remember the rules and you’ll be alright.