parentheses and brackets

I've noticed that the readability of recent posts is significantly undermined by my fondness for parenthetical comments. This is not a new thing for me. Here's an excerpt from an anonymous review of a book proposal I submitted some time ago:
The tone is nicely academic. However, (like many academics (including me)), the author is given to parenthetical remarks, which tend to interrupt the flow of the sentence or paragraph, and often seem to me to convey non-critical information. At first I thought, hmmm, well, I suppose this being a textbook she wanted to avoid using footnotes... but then I discovered that footnotes were indeed in use. I would recommend eliminating many parentheticals, and replacing some of those that shouldn’t be eliminated with footnotes.
Happily the proposal was accepted and I'm merrily writing drafts full of parentheticals, then editing them out at a later stage. It's just the way my brain works. But reflecting on my parenthetical life/style/lifestyle led me to think a bit about the terms for the things that go on either side of a parenthetical comment. You could call them parentheses--I certainly would, but BrE prefers brackets--so much so that a second-year, native-English-speaking university student listed parentheses as a word she didn't understand in an assigned reading last term.

These brackety things come up a lot in my work, since in semantics one is wont to write or read things like:
[Event GO ([Thing ], [Path IN ([Thing ])])]
(= a Conceptual Semantics way of representing the meaning of enter)
Here the ( )s and the [ ]s represent different kinds of things, so it's important for me to be able to distinguish them when I talk to students. In Montague grammar, one uses a lot of these things: < >. And in formal logic, I was taught to use these things as well: { }. AmE uses different names for all these things, but in BrE, they tend to be referred to generally as brackets, with different modifiers:

( )parentheses(round) brackets
[ ](square) brackets square brackets
{ }bracescurly brackets
< >angle brackets angle brackets

Now, I'm not actually claiming that the words listed as "AmE" here are dialect-specific. They are the correct printing terms in BrE as well. The difference is that people don't tend to use these words in general BrE, which is particularly noticeable in the everyday reference to parentheses as brackets.

I believe I've just written a blog entry that is free of parenthetical comments! Do I get a prize?


  1. I wonder why they're called that. The 'angle brackets' I wouldn't use in any other realm other than in html, but is that just me?

    One of my favourite albums - the Libertines' debut - is called Up the Bracket. It was apparently their slang word for cocaine....

  2. All those different terms for kinds of brackets/parentheses made me think of other punctuation marks and BrE/AmE differences in what they are called. For example, isn't period the American English term for what the British call a full stop? Are there any other differences?

  3. Yes, BrE full stop and AmE period refer to the same thing.

    Other different ones:
    BrE inverted commas = AmE quotation marks for the things around "this" and 'this'.

    BrE exclamation mark = AmE exclamation point.

    Colon, semicolon, comma, apostrophe, question mark: all the same in both dialects.

  4. Thanks! It's particularly all the different names for quotation marks/inverted commas that confuse me. Like if the BrE term is inverted commas, is the proper expression then single or double inverted commas instead of single and double quotes, like I keep calling them? Am I mixing dialects?

  5. In AmE, they're single or double quotation marks--or quotes for short (another case of American word clipping!), and in BrE theyr'e single or double inverted commas.

  6. Originally the parenthesis was what went between ( and ). You can see this usage in Strunk's original Elements of Style; he calls ( and ) the marks of parenthesis, and what is inside them the expression in parenthesis [sic].

  7. "Bracket" is slamg for nose in some parts at least of BrE, as in "a punch in the bracket" - CBATG to find out the origin ...

    In BrE journalism a full stop is called by sub-(copy) editors a full point or point, while inverted commas are called quote marks, with the typographically correct ones caled curly quotes ...

  8. Are you sure about angle brackets? The term I'm familiar with is angled brackets, spelt with a "d".

    As usual, the Australian custom is to use some words from British English (e.g. "full stop") and some from American English (e.g. "quotation mark"). If I commented on every example I'd be here all day.

  9. tv hanging brackets:
    [...] parentheses and brackets are not at all the same.
    * These are parentheses: ( )
    * These are brackets: [ ]
    You use parentheses much more often than you use brackets. Follow these rules for using these marks of punctuation correctly.

    Your tone there is rather dogmatic and a bit condescending, Mr Brackets. In the good old UK, accepted usage is to call 'em all brackets, exactly as described by Lynne. Except that I'd agree with outerhoard about angled brackets.

  10. The reason why that post sounded so strange, Sophie, was that it was spam (from someone trying to sell something bracket-related). And so I've done what I do with spam and deleted it.

  11. Oh, I see... Sorry, Lynne, that I have inadvertently promulgated the spam by quoting it!

  12. I'm not all that surprised a 2nd year student didn't know the word "parentheses." She'd probably seen it before but didn't quite know what it meant, so common is the word brackets in the UK (and Ireland too, probably.)

    As for "quotes/quotation marks" - I use these word all the time and I am British. Are you sure it isn't just a case of "inverted commas" being rare in AmE, whereas BrE uses both terms.

  13. Well, in BrE usage, because it contrasts with 'inverted commas', 'quotation marks' could be used to include any such marks--e.g. the angle brackets used in French. Whereas in AmE I could say "French uses angle brackets instead of quotation marks"--since the quotation marks refer specifically to the double-apostrophe-like things.

    At least, that difference is theoretically available.

  14. I'm American and I've never heard these {} called "braces" but only "curly brackets."

  15. If they are not called quotation marks in BrE, do they still use the word quote when quoting someone?
    Not sure how else to put it.


    And if not what do they call quotIng someone?

  16. Cool post! i actually found this when my professor today asked us what we called (). He said that he learned a different word for them so I googled it and found this article. Really neat :-)

    I second what David said. As an American (from Iowa) the term I hear used most is curly brackets or curly braces. This is a term that I hear quite often as I am studying Software Engineering where all of my classes revolve around programming and <>, (), [], ", and '.

    I've never paid too much attention to whether <> ended with a d or not, but I would probably call them angle brackets without the d.

    "Quotation mark" usually refers to double quotes ", and ' would be usually referred to as a single quote (in my field of study, at least).

  17. ooh, and relevant question:

    /, \, ^, @, &

    what do you call those?

    My American English:
    / forward slash (or just slash)
    \ back slash
    ^ carat (or up-carat or hat)
    @ at-sign
    & ampersand/and-sign

    any differences between that and British?

  18. I expect that most British folk know those names--especially those in programming. But there's another name for / that's more British. Ben Yagoda covers it at his blog.

  19. Think parentheses (BrE round brackets) are also called "curves" in AmE. Am I correct?

  20. Not that I've ever heard of, and not in any dictionaries that I can see.

  21. What follows are two excerpts. the first one is taken from "Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia" and the second one from "Wikipedia". They both testifies to the use of 'curves" for "parentheses".

    " An explanatory or qualifying clause, sentence, or paragraph inserted in another sentence or in the course of a longer passage, without being grammatically connected with it. It is regularly included by two upright curves facing each other (also called parentheses), or the variant form of them called brackets, but frequently by dashes, and even by commas. The quotation from Dryden given below contains a parenthesis.
    The upright curves ( ) collectively, or either of them separately, used by printers and writers to mark off an interjected explanatory clause or qualifying remark: as, to place a word or clause in parenthesis or within parentheses. The parentheses ( ), including the square form [ ] also called crotchets and now usually brackets, were formerly (as in the first quotation under def. 1) used to separate a word or words typographically, where quotation marks are now used. In phonetic discussions (Ellis, Sweet, etc.) the curves are often used for a similar purpose, to indicate that the letters of the words so inclosed have a fixed phonetic value, according to a system previously explained. The curves are also used to inclose small marks and letters, and figures of reference, in order to make them more distinct to the eye."

    " The curves, or marks of parenthesis, are used to distinguish a clause or hint that is hastily thrown in between the parts of a sentence to which it does not properly belong: as,
    'Their enemies (and enemies they will always have) would have a handle for exposing their measures.'—Walpole.
    'To others do (the law is not severe) what to yourself you wish to be done.'—Beattie.
    The incidental clause should be uttered in a lower tone, and faster than the principal sentence. It always requires a pause as great as that of a comma, or greater.

    A clause that breaks the unity of a sentence or passage too much to be incorporated with it, and only such, should be inclosed within curves, as a parenthesis: as,
    'For I know that in me, (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing.'—Rom., vii, 18.
    'Know then this truth, (enough for man to know,) virtue alone is happiness below.'—Pope.

    Included points
    The curves do not supersede other stops; and, as the parenthesis terminates with a pause equal to that which precedes it, the same point should be included, except when the sentences differ in form: as,
    'Now for a recompense in the same, (I speak as to my children,) be you also enlarged.'—2 Cor., vi, 13.
    'Man's thirst of happiness declares it is: (for nature never gravitates to nought:) that thirst unquenched, declares it is not here.'—Young.
    'Night visions may befriend: (as sung above:) our waking dreams are fatal. How I dreamt of things impossible! (could sleep do more?) of joys perpetual in perpetual change!'—Young."

  22. But note that

    (a) Not even the Century Dictionary includes 'a parenthetical mark' as one of its definitions of curve. (

    (b) The Century dictionary is well over 100 years old.

  23. I'm an American preparing grade 6 international students for a Cambridge exam. In the instructions, students are told to rewrite a sentence "using brackets". They were all confused, as was I, since nowhere in the passage could brackets be used correctly, much less putting a whole sentence in brackets as instructed. Upon further analysis, I discerned the instructions really meant for the students to rewrite a sentence "using round brackets where appropriate". I was somewhat non-plussed that an organization as "proper" as Cambridge would be so hap-hazard in writing instructions for one of their own exams!!

  24. There is nothing improper or haphazard about it. Cambridge is a British university, and as Lynne says, 'bracket' is the correct term in British English for what Americans call a 'parenthesis'. Many (most?) British people have never come across the word 'parenthesis', and many of those who have (me, for instance), would not understand it to mean a [round] bracket at all, but rather an entire phrase contained within brackets.

    Are you really demanding that, for your convenience, a British university should write their instructions in American English - even if that makes the the instructions incomprehensible to British people?


  25. Actually, on re-reading, I see you wanted them to say 'round brackets', not 'parentheses'.

    As Lynne says, in British English, '[' and ']' are called 'square brackets', and '{' and '}' are called 'curly brackets'.

    [As for '<' and '>', outside HTML I've only ever seen them used as the mathematical symbols for 'less than' and 'greater than', so I've no idea what they'd be called if used in normal text. Or indeed what they'd signify. But to me (and, I suspect most other British people), 'angle brackets' are those L-shaped metal things that you screw to a wall to support a shelf. What do Americans call those?]

    ... But '(' and ')' are just called 'brackets'.

    Nobody talks about 'round brackets', unless there is some obvious ambiguity, which is rare. To call them 'round brackets' in other circumstances has the potential to cause confusion in itself.

    You say "nowhere in the passage could [square] brackets be used correctly", so it seems that there was no ambiguity.

    I might be more sympathetic if I thought that there was even a remote chance that in a similar context an American university would refer to '[' and ']' as 'square brackets' rather than 'brackets'.

    That said, I wish you all the best and I hope the confusion hasn't spoilt your students' chances too much.

  26. @Anonynous

    I work in the US (Silicon Valkey) and at my work [] are referred to as "square brackets".

  27. I gather that British pedants insist that the American naming convention is the correct one to use in Britain, even though it is not widely understood here. So in my penultimate comment (26 January, 02:28) please delete the word 'correct' and insert 'usual' instead.

  28. To commenter 'vp', who works in Silicon Valley:

    Maybe the chances aren't as remote as I had thought, then. As promised, I am now a little more sympathetic to the original complainant.

    Do you call them 'square brackets' at work in order to avoid confusion among international speakers of English, or is that your usual name for them in California?

    What do you call '(' and ')' ?

    And what do you call these:

    I just discovered that, curiously, the angle bracket is not the only type of bracket that is both punctuation and ironmongery. Here's a square bracket:

    And here's a brace:

    As you can see, although this brace is a type of bracket, it is disappointingly not at all curly.

    I have tried in vain to source some heavy-duty galvanised steel parentheses.

    As for what angle brackets would signify in normal text, I'm still not clear, but according to Wikipedia, less pointy versions of angle brackets called 'chevrons' are sometimes used to denote words that are being thought rather than spoken, such as < What a beautiful flower! >

    I've not come across that before, but I think I may start using it. It's rather charming, isn't it?

  29. The important thing about the Cambridge Exam use of brackets is that it was in the rubric. Almost the first priority of a teacher preparing students for an exam is to train them to read and understand the rubric.

    The Cambridge Exams are proficiency tests of British English, so it's hardly surprising that they use British terms in the rubric. As the Anonymous who posted on 26 January remarked brackets is the normal British term. Even round brackets sounds strange to us when there is no contrast with other shaped brackets. In practice, I doubt very much whether the markers of Cambridge Exams worry what shape of brackets candidates use.

    I think it's generally true of British speakers that we can speak of something in brackets but never in round brackets. At least it would be impossible for me when referring to written natural language, as opposed to computer coding. It's the function that matters, not the shape.

  30. Just to note: that use of 'rubric' is very British. Never encountered it in the US. Had to learn it in South Africa, and use it in UK.

  31. Lynne

    Had to learn it in South Africa, and use it in UK.

    Yes, that underlies my point. If you become involved in a fresh national culture of education and testing, then you have a duty to learn the fresh jargon that goes with it.

    For 99.9% of AmE speakers, rubric is an alien, unnecessary word and brackets is imprecise. For the 0.1% who engage with British and British-influenced education systems, it's another matter.

    It may also be the case that rubric is not so important in US test design. For us, it's so vital that a paraphrase won't do, and nor will a general word like instructions.

  32. I don't really see what you are getting at regarding 'rubric'. [This is completely off-topic, but Lynne only has herself to blame - she started it!]
    I'm British, and although I don't work in academia I've taken quite a lot of exams over the years. (Cambridge Os and As at school in the 80s, then a University of London first degree, then exams set by a professional institution, and more recently various Open University exams.)
    I don't think anybody in all that time used the word 'rubric'. Certainly the exam papers themselves didn't - it was always 'instructions', or 'instructions to candidates', I'm sure.
    So when do examiners use the word 'rubric', and what does rubric do that instructions don't?

  33. Anonymous

    It may be a generational thing, but rubric has always been a crucial concept through my career as schoolboy, student and teacher,

    Rubric is that subset of the instructions which covers the choices a candidate must make to ensure that a 100% correct answer will receive 100% marks.

    The classic failure of rubric-reading is when the candidate answers the wrong number of questions — too many or too few — or a combination of questions that is not offered as a possibility.

    The reference to brackets wasn't quite that sort of perilous rubric, but it was an important instruction. Candidates who misunderstood the instruction could easily lose a lot of marks. A teacher is obliged to know how an exam board uses terms like this, and pass on that knowledge to students.

    Instructions like Write on one side of the paper or Do not write your name have a different importance. You might be penalised the odd mark for disobeying, but you won't have entire answers disallowed.

    Rubric is a handy term for that set of instructions which can cause catastrophic loss of marks. As long as a particular Academic Department uses the term in the planning and marking of exams, it's incumbent on any teacher in the Department to understand the term, even if he or she never uses it.

    That was my point. Lynne found herself in a Department using an unfamiliar term in discussions that were important for the success of her students. She learned the new term. It's just the same with the Cambridge Board using the term brackets. The difference is that it may be OK for students not to understand rubric, but students taking Cambridge Exams really do need to know what is meant by brackets.

    In some exams for some subjects, the rubric has been (in the past at least) so important that it was useful for them to remember the slogan Read the rubric.

  34. So, I know that language changes over time, but...... in an 1849 book, "A Rhetorical Reader" by R.G. Parker (a copy of which can be found on-line at$b307898;view=1up;seq=1), we are told that "parentheses" refers only to the phrase, and "crotchets" are the name of the enclosing marks. My guess is that that name comes round-about from the French for "hook", because of its hook shape.
    Anyway, this was an American book.
    [If anyone cares to go to that link, look in Introduction, on the book's Page 8, and again on Page 10; then see Lesson XVI on Page 48.]
    SO ----- John Cowan's comment here in 2007 suggested that Strunks agreed that "parentheses" means only the phrase, but is that actually taught any longer? Does common usage trump older definitions?

  35. Dingley Dell

    The OED quotes the use of parenthesis to mean the two marks as early as 1582. Later, English writers came to use the Latin plural form parentheses.

    Singular parenthesis also denotes a process. As Gilbert rhymed to Sullivan's music:

    Take a figure trimly planned
    Such as admiration whets
    (Be particular in this)
    Take a tender little hand,
    Fringed with dainty fingerettes,
    Pre-e-e-ess it, press it
    In parenthesis

    They don't recognise that use of crochet. Why don't you write and tell them about it?

  36. In a posting which I can't delete I remarked that the OED didn't list 'bracket' as a meaning of crochet.

    Sorry! the word is spelled crotchet and the OED gives one sense of crotchets as square brackets.

    As for the phrase within those brackets, the term has always been the Latin singular form parenthesis, not parentheses, and that's the term Richard Green Parker used. The plural parentheses for him meant two or more instances of parenthenthetical phrases.

    On examination, Parker did indeed use the terms crotchets for round brackets and brackets for square bracket. However he recommended pretty well the precise opposite of modern use: round crotchets encoding whole sentences and square brackets enclosing parts of sentences.

    He does acknowledge that other people use bracket for both marks — as we do now in Britain — but expresses disapproval. Incidentally, that

    — as we do now in Britain —

    between dashes is also what he called a parenthesis.

    It's interesting that Parker associates punctuation extremely closely with delivery in reading aloud. He advises:

    The parenthesis should generally be read in a quicker and lower tone of voice than the other parts of the sentence in which it stands.

  37. Crotchet is a very familiar term to many of us British English speakers. It means one of these:

    You Americans use the term quarter note.

    I see that Lynne has had a thread on musical notes.

  38. Native British English speaker here. "quotation marks" 'inverted commas' that's what it is here.

  39. Parenthesis is required when the sentence can't be jumbled around (even clunkily) by using commas and a clause still requires separating. You can use brackets to push down the meaning (as an aside, tangent or diversion) or a pair of lines to make the clause pop out. I thought it was pretty simple. I'm not sure why all American based grammar website refer to what Brits call brackets as parentheses when parenthesis is a grammatical act rather than the symbols we're acting with.

  40. The reason, of course, is that words can mean more than one thing and can mean different things in different places.

    But in this case, it wasn't Americans that made that new meaning. It's been in English for more than 400 years. Here's the first example from the OED:

    1582 R. Mulcaster 1st Pt. Elementarie xvii. 109
    Those characts which signify but sound not,..which be in number thirtene, in name & form these: Coma, Colon: Period. Parenthesis (.) interrogation?..the sharp accent [etc.].

  41. In my BrE, quotation marks are what they do, inverted commas are the symbol, so either "" or '' (or “” ‘’) are all quotation marks; they're single or double inverted commas, but their purpose in the sentence is as quotation marks - but so are the French guillemets or the German „“ - all are quotation marks.

    Equally, parentheses is something that a symbol does in a sentence, not the symbol itself - and when the symbol is being used for a purpose other than making a parenthetical remark, then it's not a parenthesis any more.

    The symbols are all various types of brackets, with () being usually just plain brackets, but referred to as "round" brackets when needed to disambiguate. You can also use commas or dashes (properly en-dash, but often actually realised as a hyphen) for parenthesis.

  42. The term "rubric" is familiar to me from American schools in the 2000s.

    I also recall having to be specifically taught not to call parentheses brackets.

  43. BrE. I use the term “inverted commas”, but I’ve never really thought deeply about it before. The actual symbols, as typed here, are not commas, inverted or otherwise. As mathematical notation, I would call ‘ a prime and “ a double prime. And I’ve just realised that the double prime sign on the keyboard prints as inverted commas. That’s good, because clearly only the opening quote mark is inverted. The closing quote mark is a pair of normal commas. I don’t think I’ve ever paid close enough attention to know which set opens and which set closes.

  44. BrE: Wow! I really enjoyed this debate and (like many good stories) I was glad there was no finite conclusion. The reader was left to make up their own mind which is a sign that AmE and BrE is continuing to evolve freely - although not in a straight line.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)