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March 21, 2013

Punctuation Junction: Periods and Parentheses

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Punctuation Junction: A series about what happens when punctuation marks collide.

On their own, periods and parentheses aren’t too hard to use: Put a period at the end of a sentence; put material that’s helpful but not crucial to the main text inside parentheses.

But to use these two punctuation marks effectively in combination takes a little more finesse. Here are a few scenarios:

1. When part of a sentence falls inside parentheses and part falls outside, the period goes outside.

  • Correct: Students completed several psychology courses (social, personality, and clinical).
  • Incorrect: Students completed several psychology courses (social, personality, and clinical.)

The period is a strong punctuation mark—think of it as controlling the action in the sentence, which occurs outside the parentheses.

Confused streets

2. When a whole sentence falls inside parentheses, the period goes inside.

  • Correct: (Several other courses were offered, but they were not as popular.)
  • Incorrect: (Several other courses were offered, but they were not as popular).

Again, the period is strong and governs the main part of the sentence. Because the whole sentence is inside parentheses, the period goes with it.

3. These two approaches are incompatible.

  • Incorrect: Students completed several psychology courses (social, personality, and clinical. Several other courses were offered, but they were not as popular.).

Parentheses cannot enclose part of one sentence plus an additional whole sentence. If you follow one punctuation principle, then you violate the other; if you follow both principles (as shown above), you wind up with three periods for only two sentences—also an unworkable result. If you follow neither principle, you leave the reader hanging because one sentence has no ending punctuation.

Instead, there are three ways to allow the two approaches to work in parallel. 

You can separate the statements into separate sets of parentheses:

  • Students completed several psychology courses (social, personality, and clinical). (Several other courses were offered, but they were not as popular.

Rewrite the parenthetical so that it consists of one sentence rather than two:

  • Students completed several psychology courses (social, personality, and clinical; several other courses were offered, but they were not as popular).

Or drop one set of parentheses:

  • Students completed several psychology courses (social, personality, and clinical). Several other courses were offered, but they were not as popular.

Keep an eye out for more Punctuation Junction posts coming soon!

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