Parentheses can be used almost anywhere, but they are rarely seen in fictional dialogue or in quoted speech of any kind. The problem with parentheses in dialogue is that readers may not know exactly how to interpret them.
What are parentheses?
A parenthesis (singular) is a word or group of words that has been set off from its surroundings. Whether in speech or in writing, a parenthesis acts as a commentary or as an aside or other digression. In writing, the punctuation marks known as parentheses (plural; they always come in pairs) signal this departure from the surrounding text.
A parenthesis can also be signaled by commas or dashes—or, at the end of a sentence, by a single comma or dash.
But parentheses do something commas and dashes can’t: they create an interior space that resides just below the surface and that acts sort of like an inline footnote. In other words, unlike commas or dashes, parentheses signal that the words enclosed do not fully belong to the text that surrounds them.
To be parenthetical is to be outside the text (or, literally, inside the text but not of it).
In narrative text (like most of the words in this post), there’s no problem: you know that the words in parentheses are from the narrator and that they are directed to the reader.
But quoted speech is more complicated than that. In real life, speakers make asides and digressions all the time—to themselves or to their interlocutors or to an audience (or to the sky, a deity, etc.). But in real life, gestures and tone of voice can do a lot. When speech is translated to the page, parentheses by themselves may not tell us what we need to know.
Jane Austen’s parentheses
The problem with parentheses in dialogue dates back at least two hundred years.
The half dozen or so novels by Jane Austen that were published between 1811 and 1818 continue to stand as models for how to present—and punctuate—dialogue and narrative. But a few of those older usages no longer apply. Parentheses in dialogue are a case in point.
Consider this passage from Sense and Sensibility (1811):
“It would be impossible, I know,” replied Elinor, “to convince you that a woman of seven and twenty could feel for a man of thirty-five any thing near enough to love, to make him a desirable companion to her. But I must object to your dooming Colonel Brandon and his wife to the constant confinement of a sick chamber, merely because he chanced to complain yesterday (a very cold damp day) of a slight rheumatic feel in one of his shoulders.” (vol 1., pp. 87–88)
The words in parentheses would seem to represent Elinor making a sort of aside to her sister Marianne to remind her, in support of her (Elinor’s) argument, that it had been very cold and damp the day before. That works well enough—except that it could be misconstrued as the narrator reminding us of this.
Readers of Jane Austen would be justified in such a misreading. Here’s a passage from later in the book:
“I think Edward,” said Mrs. Dashwood, as they were at breakfast the last morning, “you would be a happier man if you had any profession to engage your time and give an interest to your plans and actions. Some inconvenience to your friends, indeed, might result from it—you would not be able to give them so much of your time. But (with a smile) you would be materially benefited in one particular at least. You would know where to go when you left them.” (vol. 1, p. 238)
This time the text in parentheses—“(with a smile)”—belongs to the narrator and not to the speaker (Mrs. Dashwood). This parenthetical aside, then, functions like a stage direction. In plays and other dramatic works stage directions are typically placed in parentheses (see CMOS 13.46), but that makes the use of parentheses for the speaker’s own words an unworkable option in drama.
In a novel or a story you don’t have the problem of competing with parenthetical stage directions, but as Jane Austen shows, simply the fact that they might be used in this way makes parentheses potentially ambiguous in quoted dialogue.
Editing Jane Austen
Fortunately, parentheses are never your only option.
You may have noticed in that last passage from Sense and Sensibility that it included a dash used in the modern way—exactly as we might use one today.*
So a copyeditor would have had no problem editing that first passage even in 1811:
“. . . merely because he chanced to complain yesterday—a very cold damp day—of a slight rheumatic feel . . .”
In the second passage, commas could be used to create a narrative interruption:
“. . . so much of your time. But,” she added with a smile, “you would be materially benefited . . .”
And that’s exactly how both scenarios might be handled today.
Square brackets might also have been an option for that smile; after all, brackets signal editorial or narrative interpolation (see CMOS 13.60). But they aren’t normally used this way in fiction.†
What about today?
Parentheses in dialogue were common in Jane Austen’s time. You’ll find them fifty years earlier (e.g., in Fielding’s Tom Jones) and fifty years later (in Dickens’s Great Expectations).
But they’re rare in contemporary works—or at least they seem to be. Zeroing in on punctuation marks in context isn’t easy to do for works that are still in copyright. (For Jane Austen and other such works in the public domain, the availability of full-text HTML, including punctuation, makes investigations of this kind a relatively simple matter.)
If you’re tempted to use parentheses in dialogue in your own creative work (or to allow them as a copyeditor), keep in mind that there is no settled convention for what they mean. So unless you’re willing to tell your readers that, for example, such-and-such a character has a habit of muttering parenthetical asides, you’ll have to trust your readers to figure it out.
PS: Have you seen parentheses in recently published dialogue? If so, let us know in the comments.
* Dashes in older works (including those of Jane Austen) also tended to appear together with other marks of punctuation, such as semicolons or commas,—like this. This practice, which was common in the nineteenth century, was already being discouraged as of the first edition of what was then known simply as the Manual of Style (1906); see ¶ 159 (p. 56).
† You might use square brackets to create a sort of scholarly, metanarrative effect. In creative writing, anything that supports the narrative voice has a chance of being successful.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
~ ~ ~
Russell Harper is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.
Page snippets from the first edition of Sense and Sensibility (1811) courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition