Pardon my parentheticals

Illustration by Christie Chisholm.

Parentheses are useful. As the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) notes on the World Wide Web (WWW), “Parentheses () are used to say something that is important to the main message you are writing but is not an immediate part of it, something that would interrupt the flow of your writing if you didn’t keep it separate from everything else.”

However, The Associated Press (AP) says, “Parentheses are jarring to the reader.” That doesn’t stop many writers and publications from using them far too often, or inconsistently.

Not to pick on anyone in particular, but an example can be made of a single news article in The New York Daily News (NYDN).

To begin with, it included four sets of parentheses:

  • “Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)”
  • “Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), a House Homeland Security Committee member”
  • “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program”
  • “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program (DAPA)”

But the same article mentioned the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with no appearance of the abbreviation ACLU; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not come with the abbreviation DHS, which was used many paragraphs later; and ICE was never spelled out at all, though from the context it was clear it had something to do with immigration enforcement. (It stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.) Note, too, how the abbreviations for DACA and DAPA appear in different places relative to the program name.

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Using parentheses to enclose an acronym or initialism after the first, spelled-out mention of something is intended as a useful shortcut for readers, effectively saying “I’m going to be mentioning this again, but don’t want to have to spell the whole thing out.”

Too frequently, however, two things happen: The abbreviation doesn’t appear again for many paragraphs, forcing a reader to backtrack to find out what it stands for, or the abbreviation is given but is never used again. Both are frustrating to readers.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) says that less-common abbreviations should be spelled out the first time “as a courtesy to those readers who might not easily recognize them,” and says it’s fine to put parentheses around the abbreviation right after this long form. But it cautions that “The use of less familiar abbreviations should be limited to those terms that occur frequently enough to warrant abbreviation—roughly five times or more within an article or chapter.” It also says, “Such an abbreviation should not be offered only once, never to be used again.”

Parentheses often go around nicknames, as in “legendary football coach Paul (Bear) Bryant.” Most style guides, though, including that of The Associated Press (AP) and The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) prefer quotation marks instead of parentheses around nicknames. Quoting The Associated Press (AP): “When a nickname is inserted into the identification of an individual, use quotation marks: Sen. Henry M. ‘Scoop’ Jackson, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (NYTMSU) advises against that usage: “For special effect, a nickname may appear in parentheses within a full name: Leslie (Lamb Chops) Arniotis. But in general resist that device because of its melodramatic gangster-film overtones.” Instead, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (NYTMSU) recommends something like “Leslie Arniotis, known as Lamb Chops.”

Perhaps the most frequent use of parentheses in news reports is to give the political affiliation and constituency of lawmakers, as in “Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).” That is also possibly one of the most frequently violated rules of The Associated Press (AP), which says: “Do not use parentheses to denote a political figure’s party affiliation and jurisdiction. Instead, set them off with commas, as shown under party affiliation.”

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This column is an example of how all those capital letters jump off the page, and how the parentheses add an extra spring to the jump. If an article includes many of those abbreviations, a reader has to remember what each one is. That’s not as difficult with the easy ones like Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). But add in others that might appear in the same article, like Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and National Security Agency (NSA), and a reader can be overwhelmed.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) says parentheses “must be used sparingly” to be effective. “When they appear at all frequently, they tire the reader’s eye, add to the burden of decoding, and deaden the reader’s interest.”

If you must use abbreviations, follow the advice of Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) and use them sparingly. Instead of parentheses, go with commas: “The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.” If nothing else, it separates all those capital letters.

Better still, try to eliminate the need for those capital letters and simply call something “the program” or “the agency.” Reducing the alphabet soup of (unnecessary) acronyms or initialisms carries the added benefit of reducing the need for all those jarring parentheses. Are we okay (OK) with that?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.