Grammar Gremlins: The Bracket Racket

Back in the Dark Ages, when we wrote on typewriters, the only brackets available were parentheses. Most of us have no problems with those simple round brackets, even if we don’t use them frequently in fiction. Still, they creep in when we want to add a little aside to our description or narrative:

I asked him for his identification (a semi-shredded library card) before I let him in.

The dog dropped his favorite toy (a Kong weighing about two pounds) on my toe.

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If you use parentheses to add a word or phrase within a sentence (like this), or at the end, a comma or period goes after the closing parenthesis (like this). But if you set off a question (do you see where I’m going with this?), the question mark goes inside the parenthesis. (Yes, one round bracket is a parenthesis, but they always travel in pairs. Always. And when an entire sentence or more is within parentheses, so is all the other punctuation.)

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Parentheses have several other uses: quick translations, explanations, dates, and so forth:

About the only word he knew in Spanish was cerveza (beer).

I used to do a lot of work for the BLM (Bureau of Land Management).

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Now that we’re blessed with computer keyboards and sophisticated software, what do we do with [square brackets], <angle brackets>, and {braces}? The short answer, for fiction writers, is not much.

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Square brackets (usually referred to simply as brackets in American usage [parentheses in British usage]) can be used inside a parenthetical aside (but you probably shouldn’t).

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Brackets are used almost entirely to clarify changes or insertions made to quoted material:

“When it [the house] fell down, three people were injured.”

“The mayor said absolutely not [emphasis added].”

The frustrated teacher shouted, “Sit the [expletive] down!”

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If you’re writing a research paper, you need to know these things. If you’re writing fiction, put brackets on your back burner.

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As for angle brackets, years ago, when web site and email addresses were strange and mysterious, they were often marked by angle brackets (Visit the Grammar Gremlins at <kayhudson.com>. Drop them a line at <kay@kayhudson.com>.), but no longer. Now we all know what URLs and email addresses are, and what punctuation belongs to them.

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If you can think of some imaginative use for angle brackets (telepathic conversation? Elvish dialog? Klingon drinking songs?), feel free. They’re not doing anything else in fiction, and they might be glad of the work.

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As for braces (or curly brackets), forget them. They’re only on our keyboards for the use of programmers, mathematicians, and musicians (who are probably happy to have them accessible). You won’t need them for fiction.

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If you do feel the need to explore the finer points of brackets or braces, thepunctuationguide.com is a great place to start.

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