METM23 Chronicles: Joy Burrough-Boenisch

Exploring bracket (mis)use

The central questions underpinning this presentation were “What are brackets for?” and “What do they do?”. To answer these questions, Joy presented a nuanced overview of authoritative sources on bracket usage in English, from 18th-century Bishop Robert Lowth and 19th-century John Walker to major contemporary grammarians including Eric Partridge, David Crystal and Bryan Garner, plus the Oxford and Collins English dictionaries and the English Wikipedia.

According to these authorities, brackets can enclose a whole sentence, a clause, a word group or a single word. These parenthetical inserts denote a comment, explanation or afterthought of the author, prompting the reader to pause for a moment or lower their voice. Joy explained their function is “to guide our inner or actual tone of voice when reading”.

Examples of such asides date back to Shakespeare’s times. Joy showed – and two attendees gracefully read aloud – a fragment from sonnet 29 (written in 1592, published in 1609) containing an aside in brackets. She presented the original and two later versions, where, interestingly, the editor had moved the closing bracket to what they apparently considered a more logical place in the sentence.

Shakespeare Sonnet 29 punctuation

Brackets are also used to show alternatives or options; for example, “Any student(s) interested in taking part should email me”.

To Joy’s surprise, the authoritative sources seem to neglect the quite frequent use of brackets enclosing a word or part of a word to comic or ironic effect, such as in the newspaper headlines  “Lamb of (oh my) God”, “Big(ot) Brother” and “There is no plan(et) B”. Such bracketed wordplay can also be found in other languages, as demonstrated by an Italian sample from Joy’s collection.

English-language research publications tend to make use of brackets to save space or, in some cases, to hedge. In titles such as “(E)Merging Identities” and “(Dis)abling children in primary school microspaces” the brackets have the desired effect, but Joy quoted an opinion piece by Alan Robock in which he countered this space-saving usage with evocative examples.

Another aspect where the punctuation authorities slightly miss the mark is the dictum that removing the bracketed material from a sentence will not in any way change the meaning of the sentence. A dangerous dictum according to Joy, as the resulting sentence may be misleading and not convey what the writer intended.

Joy went on to explain that misuse of brackets occurs when the bracket usage of one language gets transferred to another. In German and Dutch, brackets are often used to indicate a dual state that can be expressed as “and/or”. A literal translation in such cases may lead to incomprehensible wording in English, as some signage from Joy’s Dutch environment clearly demonstrated. “Geen (brom)fietsen plaatsen” was rendered as “No (motor)cycle parking” rather than “No bicycle or moped parking”; “(nacht)ingang”, rather than the puzzling “(night) entrance”, simply means “24-hour entrance”. Dutch happens to be very close to German in this, and Joy cited an illuminating description of the difference between German and English bracket usage in a blog post by German-English translator Lucais Sewell.

As a native speaker of Dutch, I find Dutch-German bracket usage perfectly natural, although I’m aware that in English it can lead to serious ambiguity or even nonsense. When working in English I was already watchful of pitfalls, but now, after Joy’s systematic presentation of correct and incorrect bracket use, I feel I’ve gained a much more solid grounding. Many (many, many) thanks, Joy!

This METM23 presentation was chronicled by Marije de Jager.

Featured photo by METM23 photographer Leonardo Rizzato.

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