Parentheses and Periods: Getting Them Right

Parentheses and PeriodsThis morning I was shocked to read something that Paul Krugman wrote, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.)” Krugman knows better, of course. I’ve long been impressed with just how few typos creep into his work — even when he’s writing a lot. So much the better to use him as an example. I don’t want to put him or anyone down for this mistake. And he didn’t make this mistake out of ignorance, I’m sure. But this construct of misplacing a period in relationship to a closing parenthesis mark drives me crazy!

The truth is, this is easy. I really don’t understand why so many people have trouble with it. But trust me: I work with a lot of writers and a lot of them have trouble with it. I wonder if it is an American thing. Last year, I wrote, My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks. In England, periods go before or after an ending quotation mark based upon whether the period belongs to quoted material. In American English, we always throw the period before the quotation mark. (I hate this too, but I’ve given up the fight.)

Quotation Marks

Here’s an example from Kristen McHenry’s poem “Museum[1] in her book, The Goatfish Alphabet. Since I don’t want to deal with quotes within quotes, I’ll put this in boxes. Here is the sentence as we would typeset it in America:

My favorite line from “Museum” is, “Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines.”

But that’s wrong. The line does not end with a period. Here is how it would be typeset in Britain:

My favorite line from “Museum” is, “Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines”.

So this madness with periods and quotation marks rubs off and apparently makes people think the same is true of parentheses marks. But it isn’t! For whatever reason, we here in America care about this. And like I said: it is easy. It is, in fact, easier than with quotation marks because the intent is clearer.

Sentences Must Stop

Sentences need a stop: usually a period. This is what defines them as sentences. So in Krugman’s example above, he needs a period after the final parenthesis. He could have written it this way, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.).” But that parenthetical comment hardly needs its own stop. So better would have been, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives).”

Personally, I would have rendered it, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton. (Shhh; don’t tell conservatives!)” And having read Krugman for a decade, I suspect that’s what he meant to write.

Dealing With Parentheses and Punctuation

Here are my rules for dealing with parentheses:

  1. If a parenthetical comment is not a full sentence, treat it as you would a comment between commas.
  2. If a parenthetical comment is a full sentence, treat it as such:
    • Capitalize the first word
    • End it with a stop (period, question mark, or exclamation mark).
  3. If a full sentence parenthetical comment appears at the end of a sentence, it probably belongs outside the sentence.

But if you ever get confused about whether you need a period or other stop outside a parenthesis, ask yourself, “Is this the end of the sentence?” Remove the parenthetical comment if necessary. It should be obvious then. After you properly end your sentence, then you can put your parenthetical comment back with or without its own stop.


[1] I read a lot of poetry and this is one of my all time favorite poems. It just happens to be written by a long-time friend. When I first read it, I wrote her a thousand-word email message gushing about it. There’s more meaning and beauty in it than in the vast majority of novels.

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