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Picturing a World

Parentheses (in praise of)

In a fantasy story I’m working on, I sometimes put the narrator’s comments into parentheses. Neil Gaiman has said that, as a child, he fell in love with C. S. Lewis’s use of parentheses for chatty asides, which made him aware that there was someone telling the story. I remember having exactly the same experience, and I still enjoy the device when the author has used it well.

As for parentheses in general, I am puzzled by the current disdain for them in fiction. It annoys me especially for editors to say that commas or dashes can achieve the same thing. Of course, they can’t. Commas are muted guideposts through the syntax of a sentence. Dashes make a loud jump out. Parentheses mark a brief shift down and to the side.

Having always thought of parenthetical remarks as being spoken in something of an undertone, I was pleased to find how Richard Mulcaster defined them in 1582: “Parenthesis is expres∣sed by two half circles … and in reading warneth vs, that the words inclosed by them, ar to be pronounced with a lower & quikker voice …” (p. 148).

Punctuation isn’t sacred; its fashions change like everything else. If a mark ceases to convey meaning, it’s useless. But why call for individual voices in fiction and then deprive ourselves of a handy means to express a nuance? Parentheses have served well for more than four hundred years. Let’s keep’em in use!

For a transcription of the full text of p. 148 of The first part of the elementarie vvhich entreateth chefelie of the right writing of our English tung, by Richard Mulcaster, click here.
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