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Closing In and Trailing Off: Further Digressions in Punctuation


In this article, we’ll look at some infrequently used marks that not only digress from the main body of punctuation but also signal digressions in content.

Parentheses and brackets close in: we place them around asides, notes and other peripheral material. Ellipsis points trail off: they indicate pauses, hesitations and languid meanderings of thought.


Before plunging into parentheses, we should clarify our terms. Just as people often say hyphen when they mean dash, they say brackets when they mean parentheses (e.g., "Should I put this part of the sentence in brackets?").

It’s understandable that we Canadians should waver on terminology, being in the middle, as we are, of that sandwich of British and American usage. When it comes to punctuation terms, we side with Americans, speaking of periods rather than full stops and of parentheses rather than brackets or round brackets. In Canada, as in the U.S., the term brackets generally refers to square brackets: [ ].

Digression: The Canadian Press Stylebook (16th ed., 2010), used by journalists and others across Canada, unaccountably departs from this vocabulary. It contains a section called "Brackets (parentheses)" that refers to parentheses as brackets throughout. Just when you thought you had it figured out . . .

Parentheses have a number of well-established uses in writing. One of the most mechanical is to enclose sources and other reference-related information:

  • Our first survey of bikini buyers (May 2008) was completed by 31% more respondents than our follow-up survey (June 2010).
  • Sales of the bikini soared in the 1960s and 1970s but began a precipitous decline in the early 1980s (see Figure 3 below).

Equally mechanical is the use of parentheses to enclose examples that the author doesn’t consider essential to the sentence. Examples in parentheses are often introduced by the abbreviation e.g., as in the first paragraph under the "Parentheses" heading above, but writing out for example or for instance is just as acceptable:

  • Other, less revealing swimsuit styles (for example, the maillot, the racer, the tankini) have become increasingly popular, perhaps reflecting the tastes of aging baby boomers who now want to conceal what they once flaunted.

The most common use of parentheses, also the most subjective, is to enclose words, phrases and sometimes whole sentences that serve as asides—elements that could disappear from the sentence without destroying its meaning. In this respect, parentheses are like commas and dashes, both of which set off interruptions. The difference is one of emphasis. Parentheses minimize what they enclose, telling readers they can skip over this stuff if they’re in a hurry. Dashes emphasize, drawing readers’ attention to the material they enclose. Commas fall in between, setting off interruptions in a neutral way. It’s usually up to the writer (or sometimes the editor) to determine the degree of accenting that is right for a given sentence.

In routine workplace writing, it’s best not to overuse parentheses. Workplace documents should, after all, contain only the information needed to meet readers’ needs, no more, no less. Information in parentheses is by definition extraneous and is usually—with the exception of examples and reference-related notes—better left out.

In more personal, expressive writing, however, things are different; there’s room for occasional parenthetical elements. In fact, some authors, like the late David Foster Wallace, have made the parenthetical digression a trademark. Wallace’s dazzling essay "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage" (, published in Harper’s magazine in April 2001, not only features a parenthetical word, phrase or sentence in just about every paragraph, it’s also accompanied by 52 footnotes—I repeat, 52 officially noted digressions in a single magazine article. What’s more, many of the footnotes contain material in parentheses, and 16 are themselves fully enclosed in parentheses. Footnote 31 is the pièce de résistance. Set in parentheses, it contains a further parenthetical clause in brackets, resulting in a Russian doll of deviations:

  • 31. (a redundancy that’s a bit arbitrary, since "Where’s it from?" isn’t redundant [mainly because whence has vanished into semi-archaism])"


We see one use of square brackets in the David Foster Wallace footnote above: brackets enclose a parenthetical element that’s already inside another element set off in parentheses. Such nested digressions get confusing quickly, so should appear rarely if ever in workplace writing. One exception is certain source references:

  • Trends in women’s swimsuit purchases have been well documented by the Foundation for the Exposure of Flesh (see especially the Teeny Bikini Report [2003] and the Strapless Survey [2006]).

Brackets also enclose anything that a writer adds to or changes in a direct quotation, including the sic notation placed after an error to indicate that the mistake comes from the original material rather than from the writer’s sloppiness:

  • "Statistics are like a bikini," business professor Aaron Levenstein once quipped. "What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital [emphasis added]."
  • Regulation 101.3 states: "Citizens are prohibited from wearing them [bikinis] at municipal and regionally [sic] meetings."

Digression: If you’ve ever wondered where the word bracket comes from, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed., 2004) provides an intriguing trail: "French braguette or Spanish bragueta codpiece, diminutive of French brague from Provençal braga from Latin braca, pl. bracae breeches."

Okay, we all know that English is a savoury stew of languages, but really . . . codpiece? How did we ever get from (ahem) packages to punctuation?

There’s a cheeky clue in the first definition of bracket listed in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003): "an overhanging member that projects from a structure (as a wall) and is usu. designed to support a vertical load or to strengthen an angle." The Online Etymology Dictionary ( clinches the connection: "The typographical bracket is first recorded [in] 1750, so called for its resemblance to double supports in carpentry."

More brackets

Angle brackets (< >) are legitimate members of the bracket family too. Though more common in math and computing, they enjoyed a brief textual heyday in the 1990s as a device to enclose Web addresses. Today’s style guides counsel against setting off URLs this way to prevent confusion with the angle brackets that appear inside some addresses. That leaves angle brackets playing a few isolated roles in text, such as setting off editing codes (e.g., for heading levels) in electronic manuscripts and enclosing examples in the occasional dictionary and usage guide.

Even scarcer in text are curly brackets, often known as braces but variously (if not dizzyingly) called hooked brackets, flower brackets, birdie brackets, squiggly brackets, definite brackets, swirly brackets and (wait for it) chicken lips. Braces, like angle brackets, are more common in computer programming and math than in general text. The average writer might see them only in emoticons like the one that Nicholson Baker, in his essay "The History of Punctuation," calls "the ecstatic bracket hug of greeting: {{{{{{{{Shana!!!}}}}}}}}."


The ellipsis ( . . . ) is essential to accurate quoting because it shows when part of a quotation has been omitted. But it is the mark’s other main use, to indicate a pause or hesitation, that’s of interest in this look at digressions.

Describing this other role of ellipses, The Canadian Style (2nd ed., 1997) says that they denote "a silence in dialogue, hesitation or interruption in speech, a pause in narrative, or the passage of time" (section 7.05). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010) says, in section 13.39, that in dialogue the points show "faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity."

Mini-digression: In the 16th edition, Chicago eschewed simplicity and elected to use two different terms for ellipsis points, calling them ellipsis points when they indicate a real omission and suspension points when they show faltering or suspended speech or thought.

Nowhere is this suspension-related role of ellipses more in vogue than in email. Here’s a note that hit my inbox soon after I moved to Vancouver in 2005:

  • How are you??? In BC?? I hope you are doing well . . . I am looking forward to spring finally coming to Ottawa . . . . Anyway, to the point (if you have a second). Can you give any reason to use "a few" over "several" or vice versa??? A colleague and I have gone back and forth on this for days . . . . . and I am not happy with the final outcome. Comments?

The three instances of ellipses in this email serve varying purposes, I’d argue. The last one opens up a hesitation or a pause—a softer, more thoughtful pause than the abrupt dash would produce—and is consistent with the "suspension" function described in the style guides above. But the first two ellipses are different. Rather than creating a pause, they mark a trailing off or a shift from one thought to another.

More than a few commentators on the "email ellipsis," if I may call it that, have noted that it gives an email a stream of consciousness feeling. Some writers manipulate that feeling by increasing the number of points in each ellipsis to elongate the effect, as we see above.

Not surprisingly, email experts urge us to steer clear of such mind-wandering in professional emails by shunning the ellipsis altogether, unless we’re using it in a quotation to show omission. Yet I think there’s room for the occasional email ellipsis in personal notes like the one above. When used judiciously, it adds a shading, a rhythm, a dash of personality to a conversational email that’s hard to get otherwise. It nudges the written word closer to the spoken.

You may disagree, siding with Stuart Jeffries, columnist for the Guardian newspaper, who flippantly wrote: "I love ellipses . . . (so easy not to finish a thought but instead to lean on your full-stop key . . . . ), and I use them to seem cleverer. Ellipses confer gravitas on banal thoughts . . ." ("The joy of exclamation marks!" April 29, 2009, Me, I’d prefer to think of ellipses as conferring a little sparkle on ordinary thoughts . . . just like digressions themselves.

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