A reader of this blog suggested this Eos Forum article as a possible blog post. The clever title of the piece really says it all: “Parentheses Are (Are Not) for References and Clarification (Saving Space).” It’s a short piece; I highly recommend taking the two minutes to click the link and read it. Yes, it’s five years old but, very alas, it is still as relevant today as it was then, at least in our field.
The basic point is this: parentheses should not be used to point out the opposite case, thus avoiding an additional phrase or sentence. Like this: “Dayside (nightside) values are indicated in red (blue).” The example in the Eos article is superb, with six “parenthetical opposite comments” in a single sentence. Space physicists do this quite a bit, and seeing the article author’s departmental affiliation, “Environmental Sciences,” I think it is ubiquitous across AGU disciplines.
I did a quick search about parentheses usage and, indeed, the Eos article author, Dr. Alan Robock of Rutgers University, is absolutely correct. I could not find any usage definition for parentheses that indicated it is acceptable for opposite meanings to be put in parentheses to save the writing of a follow-on sentence or phrase. The most common usage is to set apart an explanatory side comment, something that the author wants to de-emphasize because it doesn’t really fit the normal flow of the sentence. They are also used for citation call outs by some journals, although AGU uses brackets for this.
There are some that argue parenthetical side comments should be avoided altogether because if the text doesn’t normally fit well in the sentence, it shouldn’t be there at all. That is, the reader will still pass their eyes over the parenthetical text and be distracted by the less-than-fully relevant material embedded in the sentence. I completely agree with this for long parenthetical comments, those are very distracting. I am fine with short ones that provide some quick clarification, but even these could be avoided with a little bit of work rearranging the sentence. I am consciously avoiding parenthetical text in this blog post, actively revising sentences, often with commas, to embed the sidebar text naturally within each sentence. I feel like a Parentheses Ninja.
I must admit that this was not on my grammatical radar screen and that I am probably guilty of including parenthetical opposite comments in papers. I am not going to embarrass myself and go through all of my published papers looking for this incorrect parentheses usage; I am pretty sure that I will find several instances of it. It has been brought to my attention, though, and now I will be on the lookout for it, as should all of you.
So, to JGR Space Physics authors: please avoid this incorrect usage of parentheses. Take the time to write out an additional phrase or second sentence to explain the opposite case rather than embed it within multiple parentheses. It is not only incorrect English usage but also confuses your readers, making them work harder to understand your study.
In addition, to JGR Space Physics reviewers: please feel empowered to request that this incorrect parentheses usage be changed. You will be doing all of us a favor because it will make the paper better.