Simple do’s and don’ts about brackets

Earnsy Liu | September 13, 2023

Brackets come in pairs, like animals on Noah’s Ark — if you have an opening bracket, you’ll need to use a closing bracket. But which type do you use, and when?

Two main types of brackets

The most common brackets are round ones. Americans call them parentheses (or parenthesis when talking about one). The other type of brackets are square brackets. Confusingly, Americans call those brackets!

Both types are to ‘fence off’ extra information — non-essential information you could omit without changing the meaning.

Mildewy white picket fence around a Hobbit’s house (Samwise Gamgee’s house).

Brackets help ‘fence off’ extra information from your main message. Image by 1377236 / Pixabay licence

Use round brackets for most things

Round brackets are multi-purpose.

A pair of round brackets.

Round brackets are sometimes called parentheses. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

To clarify or expand

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins (called ‘Chippy’ by his friends) loves sausage rolls.

Mānuka (kahikātoa or Leptospermum scoparium) is common throughout New Zealand.

To introduce or explain abbreviations

Australia and New Zealand mark ANZAC Day every year (ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).

All Blacks legend Richie McCaw is sometimes called a GOAT (greatest of all time).

To comment

The Plain Language Act 2022 aims to make government communication easier to understand (hooray!).

Thanks for your informative report (which was beautifully written).

For cross-references and citations

More and more New Zealanders are learning te reo Māori (see Figure 1).

Research shows that clear language matters in academia (Feld, Lines, and Ross, 2022).

Use square brackets in quotes

Use square brackets to show that you’ve added something to a quote.

A pair of square brackets.

Square brackets may just be called brackets. Image by Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

To clarify

Say the original message is ‘Chilly bins are great for keeping refreshments cool in summer.’ Someone reading it outside New Zealand may wonder, ‘What’s a chilly bin?’ You could explain in square brackets:

Chilly bins [insulated bins for chilled food or drink] are great for keeping refreshments cool in summer.

To acknowledge a mistake in the original

Say you notice a mistake in a quote you want to use. Because you’re quoting, you can’t fix the mistake, but you can show you’ve noticed it. For example:

He tweeted, ‘I look forward to the day when everyone wrights [sic] in plain language!’

Use brackets thoughtfully and in moderation

Just because you can use brackets doesn’t mean you must.

Don’t use brackets to say ‘one or more’

Please don’t use brackets to say singular or plural, like ‘person(s)’. Brackets used in this way make things feel harder to read, and legalistic. For example, ‘New Zealand bans any traveller(s) from bringing plants into the country.’ Try rewriting instead, either as:

New Zealand bans any traveller from bringing plants into the country.

or as

New Zealand bans travellers from bringing plants into the country.

Put brackets at the end if possible

Brackets can disrupt reading because they introduce extra information. Sometimes brackets need to be right next to what you’re explaining, like when you’re introducing an abbreviation. But at other times, readers might grasp your message faster if you put the bracketed information at the end of the sentence or in a separate sentence.

Here’s a sentence with bracketed information in the middle: ‘Sometimes when I’m stressed (for example, when I have way too much to do), going for a short walk helps me think more clearly and solve problems better.’ Why not say:

Sometimes when I’m stressed, going for a short walk helps me think more clearly and solve problems better (for example, when I have way too much to do).

Go minimal

If you find yourself using lots of brackets, see if you need all of them. Brackets add visual clutter. Do you need all the information in brackets? If so, are brackets the best option? Can you use a long dash instead — like this?

Pick up more tips for perfect punctuation

Wield commas like a Jedi Knight wields the Force

Five simple rules for perfect apostrophes

Hyphens: how to use them

Dot-dot or dot-comma? When to use colons and semicolons

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