In Praise of Parentheses

Sunday, July 22, 2012
I'm currently reading "Wickedly Charming" by Kristine Grayson, a pen name of Kristine Kathryn Rusch. One of the things I noticed is that there are lots of parentheses in this novel. Now, this might not seem of sufficient import to base a whole blog entry on, but think about it. When was the last time you saw parentheses appearing once in a novel, much less multiple times?

:::Queue Jeopardy theme:::

That's what I thought. It seems that punctuation marks, along with everything else, fall out of fashion. Somewhere in the last few decades, parentheses have become unfashionable. They've been replaced by the em-dash in most cases. An em-dash ( --> ) is a slightly wider version of the regular dash (-). You won't find one on your computer keyboard, but they're often used in printed matter. If you type two dashes next to one another in Word, it will convert them to an em-dash.

But I digress. In "Wickedly Charming," Kris writes:
Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreen (even if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut).
instead of:
 Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreeneven if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut.
The second form is what I've grown used to seeing in current fiction, which is why the parentheses stood out on the page for me. And I realized that I liked the parentheses better. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but the first form is what I remember being taught in elementary school. The second form seems lazy to me. Like the writer couldn't be bothered to use the proper punctuation.

I do have to point out that putting the asides inside parentheses is sometimes carried away in this book. There are remarks inside remarks, which are shown by square brackets ([]) inside the parentheses.
 She had her hands on her hips (which hadn't expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) as she surveyed...
 There are even a few cases of parentheses inside brackets inside parentheses. This began to remind me of A Garland of Ibids for Van Wyck Brooks, a very funny essay by Frank Sullivan in The New Yorker published in 1941, in which footnotes gradually took over the piece. Since "Wickedly Charming" is a lighthearted romance, the touch of humor wasn't too out of place.

The use of parentheses struck a chord with me. Although I tend to use em-dashes rather than parentheses, my out-of-favor punctuation mark is the semicolon (;). It's used to separate two independent clauses in one sentence. You could put in a period instead and start a new sentence with the second clause and be grammatically correct. But the semicolon ties the two thoughts closer together. It's a subtle difference, but an important one when you're trying to communicate with a reader.

Members of critique groups I've belonged to usually cross out my semicolons and replace them with periods. Or, worse, commas. I've been told more than once that an editor had told the person who had done this that you don't use semicolons in fiction.

Why not? It's a valid punctuation mark. It's even on my computer keyboard. Who made up this rule about no semicolons?

There are other rules that have become "common knowledge" in publishing today. Show don't tell. Eliminate all adverbs and adjectives. Active, not passive. Now, while I understand (I think) the point of most of these general rules, which was to use more of the former and less of the latter, I don't think they were originally meant to be absolutes. Unfortunately, too often they've become absolute.

I have this picture in my head of all these young English majors working at their first job at a New York publisher, shaking their heads as they cross out every word that ends in "ly." They've learned "the rules" and, because they don't have the maturity to realize that it's the excess of telling and adverbs and passive voice that was intended in them, they apply them too rigidly.

It's certainly not the readers. I remember reading a blog not too long ago where the writer was commenting on the growth of indie fiction and how, as a reader, she was thrilled with this. Specifically, she wrote something like: "Yay! The adjectives and adverbs are back!"

So, while "Wickedly Charming" was published by Sourcebooks, a traditional publisher, I'm still happy indie publishing has allowed more flexibility in "the rules." And I was very happy to see the parentheses in it.


Solar_ted said...

Hmmmm, I'll have to pay attention to that in the books I'm reading. Though my use of the English language is far from good, in emails I write I'll often make use of ()'s and " ;'s ".


Elise M Stone said...

That's because you're a reader and not a writer. No one has told you "the rules" since you went to school, so you're not conscious of them. When you're a writer, you obsess about them. :-)

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