Closing in and trailing off: More digressions in punctuation

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 2, 2010, page 14)

In this issue of Language Update, we’ll look at some infrequently used marks that not only digress from the main body of punctuation but also signal digressions in content.

Parentheses and brackets enclose: we place them around asides, notes and other peripheral material. Ellipsis points trail: they indicate pauses, hesitations and languid digressions of thought rather than content.


Before plunging into parentheses, we should get the naming clear. Just as people often say "hyphen" when they mean dash, they say "brackets" when they mean parentheses (e.g., "Should I put this part of the sentence in brackets?").

It’s not surprising that we Canadians should waver on terminology, being in the middle, as we are, of that sandwich of British and American usage. When it comes to punctuation, we side with Americans, speaking of "periods" rather than "full stops" and "parentheses" rather than "brackets" or "round brackets." In Canada, as in the U.S., the term "brackets" generally refers to square brackets: [ ].

Digression: The Canadian Press Stylebook, used by journalists across the country, is an unaccountable anomaly. It contains a section entitled "Brackets (parentheses)" that refers to parentheses as brackets throughout. Just when you thought you had it figured out…

Parentheses have various well-established uses in writing. One of the most mechanical is to enclose source and other reference-related information:

Our first survey of bikini buyers (May 2008) was completed by 31% more respondents than our follow-up survey (June 2010).

Sales of the bikini soared in the 1960s and 1970s but began a precipitous decline in the early 1980s (see Figure 3 below).

Equally mechanical is the use of parentheses to enclose examples that the author doesn’t consider integral to the sentence. Examples in parentheses are often introduced by the abbreviation "e.g.," as in the first paragraph under the "Parentheses" heading above, but writing out "for example" or "for instance" is just as acceptable:

Other, less revealing swimsuit styles (for example, the maillot, the racer, the tankini) have become increasingly popular, perhaps reflecting the preferences of aging baby boomers who now want to hide what they once flaunted.

The most common use of parentheses, and also the most subjective, is to enclose words, phrases and sometimes whole sentences that serve as asides—elements that could disappear from the sentence without destroying its meaning. In this respect, parentheses are like commas and dashes, both of which set off interruptions. The difference is one of emphasis. Parentheses minimize what they enclose, telling readers they can move on if they’re in a hurry; dashes emphasize, drawing readers’ attention to what they enclose; and commas fall somewhere in between, setting off interruptions in a neutral way. It’s usually up to the writer (or sometimes the editor) to determine the degree of accenting that is right for a given sentence.

In routine workplace writing, it’s wise not to overuse parentheses. Workplace documents should, after all, contain only the information needed to meet readers’ needs, no more, no less. Information in parentheses is by definition extraneous and is usually—with the exception of examples and reference-related notes—better left out.

In more personal, expressive writing, however, things are different; there’s room for occasional parenthetical elements. In fact, some authors, like the late David Foster Wallace, have made the parenthetical digression a trademark. Wallace’s dazzling essay "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage," published in Harper’s in April 2001 (and available at Harper’s Magazine, David Foster Wallace), not only features a parenthetical word, phrase or sentence in just about every paragraph, it’s also accompanied by 52 footnotes—I repeat, 52 officially noted digressions, in a single magazine article. What’s more, many of these footnotes contain parenthetical elements, and 16 are themselves fully enclosed in parentheses. Footnote 31 is the pièce de résistance. Set in parentheses, it contains a further parenthetical clause in brackets. The result—a digression within a digression within a digression:

"31. (a redundancy that’s a bit arbitrary, since "Where’s it from?" isn’t redundant [mainly because whence has vanished into semi-archaism])"


The David Foster Wallace footnote shows one use of brackets: to enclose a parenthetical element that’s already inside another element set off in parentheses. Such nested digressions get confusing pretty quickly and so should appear rarely if ever in workplace writing. One exception is certain source references:

Trends in women’s swimsuit purchases have been well documented by the Foundation for the Exposure of Flesh (see especially the Teeny Bikini Report [2003] and the Strapless Survey [2006]).

Brackets also enclose anything that a writer adds to or changes in a direct quotation, including the sic notation placed after an error to indicate that the mistake comes from the original material rather than from the writer’s sloppiness:

"Statistics are like a bikini," business professor Aaron Levenstein once quipped. "What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital [emphasis added]."

Regulation 101.3 states: "Citizens are prohibited from wearing them [bikinis] at municipal and regionally [sic] meetings."

Now for an etymological digression. If you’ve ever wondered where the word "bracket" comes from, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary provides an intriguing trail: "French braguette or Spanish bragueta codpiece, diminutive of French brague from Provençal braga from Latin braca, pl. bracae breeches."

Okay, we all know that English is a savoury stew of languages, but really…codpiece? How did we ever get from (ahem) packages to punctuation?

There’s a cheeky clue in the first definition of "bracket" listed in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: "an overhanging member that projects from a structure (as a wall) and is usu. designed to support a vertical load or to strengthen an angle." The (Online Etymology Dictionary) clinches the connection: "The typographical bracket is first recorded [in] 1750, so called for its resemblance to double supports in carpentry."

More brackets

Angle brackets () are legitimate members of the bracket family too. Though more common in math and computing, they enjoyed a brief textual heyday in the 1990s as a device to enclose Web addresses. However, current style guides now counsel against setting off URLs this way to prevent confusion with the angle brackets that appear inside some addresses. That leaves angle brackets playing a few isolated roles in texts, such as setting off editing codes (e.g., for heading levels) in electronic manuscripts and enclosing examples in occasional dictionaries and usage guides.

Even scarcer in text are curly brackets, commonly known as braces but variously (if not dizzyingly) called hooked brackets, flower brackets, birdie brackets, squiggly brackets, definite brackets, swirly brackets and chicken lips. Braces, like angle brackets, are more a feature in computer programming and math than in general text. The average writer might encounter them only in emoticons like the one that Nicholson Baker, in his essay "The History of Punctuation," calls "the ecstatic bracket hug of greeting: {{{{{{{{Shana!!!}}}}}}}}."


Ellipses (…) are essential to accurate quoting because they show when part of a quotation has been omitted. But it’s their other principal use, to indicate a pause or hesitation, that’s of interest in our look at digressions.

Describing this other role of ellipses, The Canadian Style says that they denote "a silence in dialogue, hesitation or interruption in speech, a pause in narrative, or the passage of time" (section 7.05). The Chicago Manual of Style notes more specifically that in dialogue, the mark shows "faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity" (15th ed., section 11.45).

Nowhere is this speech-related role of the ellipsis more in vogue than in email and text messaging. Take this usage question that a correspondent emailed me soon after I had moved to Vancouver:

How are you??? In BC?? I hope you are doing well…I am looking forward to spring finally coming to Ottawa….Anyway, to the point (if you have a second). Can you give any reason to use "a few" over "several" or vice versa??? A colleague and I have gone back and forth on this for days…..and I am not happy with the final outcome. Comments?

The three ellipses in this email serve varying purposes, I’d argue. The last one opens up a hesitation or pause—a softer, more thoughtful pause than the abrupt dash would produce—and in this way is consistent with the ellipsis functions described in the style guides. But the first two ellipses are different. Rather than creating a pause, they mark a trailing off or a shift from one thought to another.

More than a few commentators on the "email ellipsis," if I may call it that, have noted that it gives an email a stream of consciousness feeling. Some email writers manipulate that feeling by increasing the number of periods in the ellipsis to elongate the effect, as we see above.

Not surprisingly, email experts urge us to steer clear of such mind-wandering in professional emails by shunning the ellipsis altogether, unless we’re using it in a quotation. Yet I do think there’s room for the occasional email ellipsis in personal messages like the one above. When used judiciously, it adds a shading, a rhythm, a dash of personality to a conversational email that’s hard to get otherwise.

You may disagree, preferring the view of Stuart Jeffries, columnist for The Guardian, who flippantly wrote: "I love ellipses…(so easy not to finish a thought but instead to lean on your full-stop key …. ), and I use them to seem cleverer. Ellipses confer gravitas on banal thoughts…" ("The Joy of Exclamation Marks!" April 29, 2009). Me, I’d prefer to think of ellipses as conferring a little sparkle on ordinary thoughts…just like digressions themselves.

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