Whither the Right Parenthesis

My work keyboard broke this week.

I s[]ent my days ty[]ing emails, drafting interview res[]onses for the dean, and []lanning logisitics for an u[]coming fashion show — without a few keys. How did I manage[]

As you can surmise, I didn’t have my “p” or my “?” So I kept the Wikipedia pages open for the letter and the punctuation mark, toggling from tab from tab when I needed to paste either into an email.

But more annoying — or perhaps more unsettling — was my broken “)” key. (I had no idea how disturbed this lack would make me.

The word “parenthesis” comes to us from Greek (via Late Latin, and literally means “a putting in beside.”

The symbols first appeared in the late 14th century, invented by scribes. By 1715, they came to mean not only the words being inserted, but also the little lunulae “( )” that contain the words being inserted.

Without the “)” I could open an aside but I couldn’t close it back up. I would end up drifting along endlessly, typing out clauses and digressions tangentially related to the main point of my sentences.

But nothing I meant to type was impertinent, irrelevant, subordinate, or extraneous. I didn’t mean to distract. Instead, the nests I was building with my words strove to retain complexity in a world of constant emailing, brevity, and clarity above-all-else.

(No less — I couldn’t even suggest a modicum of humor (as in the smiley emoji! :

In speech and in writing, I tend to ramble, provide context, and be as clear as I can, while also painting as full a picture as possible. Parentheses help for all these needs. Like coy little crescents, they begin to grow (the literal meaning of “crescent,” nurturing the buds of new thoughts, and they suggest the paths toward new conversations. Or they answer questions you didn’t realize you’d have — or they allude to latent anxieties.

Best of all, parentheses exemplify the vocative case: they reach out and speak directly to the reader. Your voice changes when you read a parenthetical expression. The tone they deploy in you, the reader, is hushed, or lowered, or somehow more emphatic.

But the irony of the parenthetical is that by setting thoughts aside, you actually privilege them to operate at a different register, at a different level of syntactical labor.

Dr. Lewis Thomas, in his book his 1979 book The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, has a passage called “Notes on Punctuation,” the entire section of which seems contained within parentheses.

There are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity))).

That which you set aside, apart, to the side, retains an almost generative uncertainty within a sentence. Parentheses accommodate the space between speech and writing — they are how you meander through an argument.

But ever more than that, remember the math teacher who made you grumble with impatience when he said, “Show your work”? Parentheses show the process through which sentences come together — all the glimmers, traces, and trails of thought that drift in and out of sentences. All the ways we got to a finished product. All the alternative turns a sentence could’ve taken.

We are always bounding these asides within rigid punctuation marks, but perhaps it’s the entire sentence that should be bounded instead — the parenthetical that should be set apart to wander, to let ambiguity roam free.