Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What's the general approach to using parenthesis (the grammatical construct, not the punctuation mark) in fiction?

I have an internal "ranking" of them:

  • Comma-delineated parenthesis, like this, is the most natural and normally suffices.
  • Em-dash-delineated parenthesis - like this - is more abrupt, but still acceptable in a story.
  • Bracket-delineated parenthesis (like this) is too abrupt (or perhaps too formal) to be used in narrative writing.

That's basically what feels natural to me when I'm writing. However, I've received critiques where people have said that I shouldn't use em-dashes for parenthesis, and upon consideration, I haven't actually seen many authors use it, at least not as often as I do. Is there any kind of standard for this?

share|improve this question
What you mean is "parenthetical," or "aside," not "parentheses." That's part of your problem. Your question is valid, but you're wording it incorrectly. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 5 '14 at 14:38
No, OP is using it correctly. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenthesis_(rhetoric) – Russell Borogove Jun 5 '14 at 23:25
@RussellBorogove I've never heard that word used that way, but obviously people do. However, I maintain that using "parenthesis" for the punctuation and "parenthetical phrase" for the aside is useful for clarity in this discussion. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 6 '14 at 13:01
up vote 6 down vote accepted

To me, brackets imply some kind of meta comment: a thought or remark that does not reside on the same level as the rest of the text and is therefore taken out of it:

Commas (don't confuse them with colons!) look like little Nines.

In fiction there is no meta level, where you, the author, speak to the reader. The narrator may address the reader, but this is still a fictional construct, a literary device, and takes place on the level of the narration. The author himself can only speak in a preface or afterword, or elsewhere outside the text of the novel.

Commas are just syntactic devices integrating adjunct clauses from the end of a sentence into its middle:

The ladder collapsed because it was old.
The ladder, because it was old, collapsed.

Dashes signify a break in the text and insert content from outside the chronological or argumentative order of the narration, e.g. a bit of backstory:

John — he was the oldest of Paul's three sons — did not hesitate to ...

You can convey the same information with commas:

John, the oldest of Paul's three sons, did not hesitate to ...

The difference, to me, is that with commas you just quickly provide the information while your story keeps running, while the dashes pause the story and take the reader for a short trip to another story, in this case the story of John's childhood. And even if the inserted clause only hints at that childhood, as in the preceding example, the dashes draw the reader's attention to this bit of information and signify its importance. You can, of course, provide more detail:

John — he was the oldest of Paul's three sons and had been beaten severely by his drunken father — did not hesitate to ...

That detour can be as long as you want, and you may repeat relevant parts of your surrounding sentence after the insertion:

John — he was the oldest of Paul's three sons and had been beaten severely whenever his father caught him gazing at his sister taking a shower through the bathroom keyhole —, John did not hesitate to ...

share|improve this answer
"You may repeat relevant parts of your surrounding sentence after the insertion." Well, yes, if your entire narrative voice is like that, or if you're using a first-person voice from a narrator who doesn't care about grammar. It is not grammatically correct to repeat "John" in that last example, because if you were to take out the parenthetical, it would read "John John did not hesitate to..." If it's a deliberate stylistic choice used everywhere, it's fine. If it's not used everywhere consistently, don't do it. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 5 '14 at 15:14
Which is why I inserted a comma after the dash, which your edit – made while I was working on my edit – deleted ;-) The result would be: "John, John did not hesitate ...", which may be bad style, but is grammatically correct. But you are right that the overall narrative style has to be compatible. – what Jun 5 '14 at 15:26

To my mind, it's a matter of how "big a break" you want.

Commas are a small break. Dashes are a bigger break. And parentheses are a bigger break yet. (When I say "parentheses" in this post, I mean the punctuation mark. Personally I use the phrase "parenthetical statement" or "parenthetical remark" to refer to the words themselves.)

If you use parentheses a lot it can be very distracting. It makes the narrative seem choppy. Dashes are less imposing -- you can use them much more before they get distracting. You can use commas a great, great deal before people find them distracting.

I generally avoid using parentheses in dialog because it's not clear how the reader is supposed to read it. In my mind I picture a lower or more casual tone of voice. But it's ambiguous.

I've seen many writers use dashes for parenthetical remarks. I'm sure there are English teachers and grammar Nazis who say it's wrong, but I think it's pretty common these days, most people accept it, and it is readily understood.

Besides that, I'd just say: whatever you do, don't overdo it. If every sentence you write as parentheses in it, you want to rethink that.

share|improve this answer
Hmm. There are two types of "size" to a break: the disruption size (where parentheses/brackets are least disruptive, commas next, finally dashes, parentheses are soft) and the conceptual size (where parentheses often represent the largest separation, e.g., tangential comments). In dialog, parentheses could be used to indicate sotto voce, e.g., "I didn't go out with her (not that I'd tell you if I did)" is relatively unambiguous. Yet ambiguity is an issue. There is also a length factor. '()' can contain a paragraph, '—' multiple clauses, ',' is more limited. – Paul A. Clayton Jun 5 '14 at 21:47

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.