Life Without Parenthesis …

On how patterns of parenthesis determine writing style; quote from Banville’s “The Book of Evidence”.

… would be impossible.

Dome of flawless blue


Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).

The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.

Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)

The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.

Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.

That is 99 words, of which 54 are parenthetical.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Rich prose: lyrical, colloquial, intimate.

Daylong rain

What makes the Quote rich? Let’s strip out the asides and interruptions. (Note that the Quote also has an aside within an aside.)

Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia? Living there was like living in another world. Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.

It’s not bad writing; it’s clear, concise, but a bit disjointed, like a series of verbal bursts without the lilt of cohesive speech. The lyrical paintbox colours, dream of rain, and story-book are gone. The explanatory colloquialisms of homesickness and or it crossed my mind are gone too. And with all that, the intimacy of a first person voice is gone, leaving behind a we and a series of statements that rouse few emotions.

What is at the core of the Quote?


Parenthesis, from the Greek parentithenai meaning put in beside, is a figure in which one or more words interrupt the syntactic flow of an otherwise complete sentence. It is marked off by commas, dashes, or round brackets. (The latter is commonly thought of as the first meaning of the word parenthesis; it’s the second.)

Asides or afterthoughts, highlights or emphasis, where and when, humour and irony and colour and life—how you employ parentheses determines your writing style in a different way than does word choice or theme. It’s a patterning of language that receives little attention, which is a shame: tweaking it makes all the difference.

Reading Recommendations

  1. Style: Quirks and PerksQQ. On E. B. White’s vision of style in writing.
  2. Other articles on quotes from John Banville’s books, QQ. There is a lot to learn from him.
  3. The Book of Evidence, John Banville. It’s part of a trilogy, so if you like the first book, there’s more!

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

8 thoughts on “Life Without Parenthesis …”

  1. How often I have heard, in my time as a teacher, other teachers telling student to ‘just write the way you talk’. But then they never go on to explain that as they talk they pause, raise their eyebrows, smirk, smile, frown and gesticulate;say I, as I pause to sip again from my Cabernet Sauvignon (A nice little number from the Clare Valley).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed … Although knowing how to get across those gestures of speech using punctuation is a matter of practicing and being guided by teachers, as much as it’s a matter of having a “feeling” for how it’s been done by those who came before … But what am I saying, that holds for all aspects of (good) writing.


  2. I’ve always avoided dashes and brackets, thinking they’re a bit too ‘technical’ for creative writing. Asides and oblique thoughts, seem to work equally with commas which as you say are a form of parenthesis anyway.
    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So did I, until I realised I was cutting myself off from two elements of punctuation that could be very helpful. Let’s see…

      You’re right that commas can do most jobs, but precisely because of their versatility, it’s harder to tell at a glance what they set apart: a descriptive element, a new thought, an interjection, an aside … Brackets and dashes give the (creative) writer an easy way of making the enclosed text stand out.

      Brackets are found in quite a few fiction books and short stories and poems. They flavour the writing in a particular way, as whispers, confessions, exceptions, witticisms, a way commas can’t. For example the Latin American authors I’ve been reading recently (Monterroso, Cortázar Borges) use brackets to insert humour, ironical asides, and personal doubts of the narrator. This allows them to have two voices, one that is telling the story, and one that is giving you the subtext. Banville uses brackets sparingly and for comments and details that are de-emphasised, in the sense that they don’t effect the main narrative as much, but are interesting enough and flavourful enough for the reader to enjoy.

      (Unlike in non-fiction, where clarity of message is paramount and brackets separate the less important details from the main body of the text, in fiction I wouldn’t ever recommend skipping bracketed content because it’s part of the author’s voice and it is intended to be read.)

      Brackets are a more distinctive stylistic element than dashes—they stand out more, and using them consistently and to good effect in creative writing is harder.

      Parenthetical dashes emphasise. If capital letters shout, bold letters speak loudly, exclamation marks show sharp surprise or emphasis, italics emphasise softly, then I’d put dashes on par with exclamation marks, only different in quality: they lift the enclosed text out of the plane of commas and say “this matters, this is important”. Depending on the context, who is saying “this matters” will change. In first person storytelling, dashes can be used to emphasise what matters to the narrator; in omniscient narration, what matters to the author; in dialogue, they can mark self-interjections more clearly than commas can.

      I think of brackets and dashes as giving the text texture: if commas are the baseline fabric of the narrative, dashes lift out words, brackets push down words. Like with any other writing tool, it’s an art to master them, but once applied with skill, they give more nuanced control to the writer and tell a more nuanced story to the reader.

      I may have gone off on a tangent there … does this vaguely answer your question? If not, let me what I’ve missed 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No tangents… that’s worth more than you can imagine. Thank you so much. I’m going to start practising these parentheses with my site… having a lot of technical issues to make it public (though the site is active) that you tend to forget the technicalities of language which is what we’re all about here!… interesting what you say about pushing thoughts more subtle and then letting them shout.
        Again thank you your site is really valuable and worthwhile.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, glad to hear that! Thanks for the kind words.
        If you’ve ever got any more questions let me know 🙂 Answering helps me pin down details.

        I know about the technical issues—they can sometimes be so distracting!

        Good luck and see you around 🙂


Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: