Ask an Editor: Punctuation with Parentheses

Every Friday I plan on answering a writing or editing question I've received via social media—or submission on this site. Today's topic? Those lovely curvy marks known as parentheses. 

Can you provide a refresher on how to handle punctuation with parentheses?

Sure thing! Parentheses function like a stronger pair of commas—or em dashes—and set off material from the surrounding text. It’s a way of creating an intensely visual amplification or aside. (You know, a whisper to the reader.) As a general rule, consider whether the punctuation belongs to the parenthetical matter or to the actual sentence:

  1. I made it to happy hour ($3 craft beer drafts!), but I missed the appetizers.
  2. It was colder, snowier, and pierogier. (Is that a word? It should be.)
  3. My cat ate a giant centipede (and left a big pile of legs behind).

If the punctuation mark belongs to the surrounding sentence, it goes outside the parentheses. In example one the comma separates two independent clauses at the conjunction. Because the first independent clause ends after the parenthetical matter, the comma follows the closing parenthesis. Example one also contains punctuation that belongs to the parenthetical matter. The exclamation point clearly belongs to the “$3 craft beer drafts!” statement, which means it needs to go inside the parentheses. Exclamation points and question marks are acceptable in mid-sentence parenthetical matter, but periods are not.

If an entire sentence is enclosed in parentheses and isn’t sitting in the middle of a nonparenthetical sentence (example two), a period precedes the closing parenthesis. However, when a parenthetical statement occurs at the end of a sentence (example three), the period follows the closing parenthesis.

When it comes to colons and semicolons, both can go inside parentheses to perform their respective functions; they just can’t precede the closing parenthesis. They shouldn’t precede an opening parenthesis either, unless parentheses are being used for enumeration:

She told her students to pack the following items: (1) a romance novel, (2) hiking boots and wool socks, (3) a light jacket and clothes for three days, and (4) a single book of matches. (Weird, right?)

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