NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
There are two different types of brackets (Round) and [Square] and in British grammar the square brackets usually go inside the round brackets to indicate extra, extra information. If we’re doing an attribution for example we would have:
(Writer, Title, [date])
This is more commonly used in academic texts rather than fiction prose, unless we’re quoting lines of poetry. Regular readers may also have noticed that I sometimes use square brackets with an ellipses within quotations […] to indicate where a quotation has been shortened. This is common in academic articles/essays where we don’t necessarily long quotations on the main points:
‘I made my initial point which I then described […] the second related point you wanted was a few lines down.’
These brackets indicating the missing information can also be used at the beginning of quotations to show that the quotation doesn’t open with the beginning of the sentence. This is because in academia sometimes you get some really long, sometimes waffly and boring, sentences. On a side note, if I was being academic then I’d call round brackets parentheses. (Why keep things simple when we can give them a complex name?)
Round brackets can be used in fiction but don’t have to be and in some instances where we might use them they’ve been replaced by dashes –. So if we have a sentence (for example this one) in round brackets we could write the sentence – for example this one – in dashes instead. Whichever way we lay out our brackets it’s important to remember that whatever is inside the bracket must be removable. By which I mean, if we remove the bracketed material from the sentence it still works as a sentence:
I did not consider (it did not seem important at the time) the effect my use of brackets might have.
If we take the brackets out we still have a functional sentence:
I did not consider the effect my use of brackets might have.
We couldn’t have:
I did not consider (the effect my use of brackets might have).
If we take out the end of the sentence we cease to have a sentence because we’re left with:
I did not consider.
What did we not consider? The only way this could work as a sentence is as a reply to someone else’s statement without which it is completely out of context.
Another way we can use brackets is to bracket an entire sentence between sentences:
I did not consider the effect my use of brackets might have. (The effect did not seem important at the time.)
This is also the only time when the full stop at the end of the sentence will appear within the bracket. If we have multiple sentences between the brackets then we will punctuate them like any other sentences but when we have the brackets as part of another sentence we put the full stop outside:
I did not consider the effect my use of brackets might have (it did not seem important at the time).
By doing this we show that the sentence the brackets are within has finished as well as the sentence within the brackets. In this instance putting the full stop inside the brackets would suggest that the sentence within the brackets is completely separate from the sentence outside the brackets implying it should be set out like the previous example.
The final way we might use round brackets is to add tiny optional bit of information such as:
Sometimes we might want to say singular with an option for plural so our statement can apply to the boy(s) and the girl(s).
This use rarely applies in fiction and more often appears in formal documents or notices, such as formal letters that have been mail-merged.
There is one important detail to remember when we’re using brackets in fiction and that is to ask ourselves if the extra information we’re using actually needs to appear. We can, for instance, include sort asides within commas (see my original comma article) because with brackets we run the risk of inserting too much unnecessary information, particularly when it comes to exposition. This doesn’t mean we can’t use brackets, nor does it mean everything within brackets is unnecessary, it simply means that when we use brackets we need to be careful we aren’t putting too much unnecessary information between them.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.