Sunday, 1 March 2009

Brackets, the new pariah

Any writer knows that punctuation is as class-ridden as Victorian society. Exclamation marks are pariahs, commas are frequently excluded, left-wing councils attempt to banish the apostrophe altogether.

But I've only recently noticed the animus against brackets. I use them myself to denote an aside, something away from the main thread of the discourse, and think them quite handy. After several people had advised me to remove them, I started a thread on the Authonomy forum asking why. The reasons given were:
  • They look ugly

  • There are better ways to punctuate a sentence

  • They disrupt the flow of a sentence

  • They show laziness

I'm not convinced. Challenged to nominate the prettiest punctuation, if brackets were the ugliest, someone suggested the tilde (pronounced tild-uh, for those as ignorant as me). It's this one: ~ I made up a rhyme about it as follows:

There once was a writer called Hilda,
Who favoured a dash called a tilde,
She maintained that a bracket,
Could simply not hack it,
So the brackets surrounded (and killed) her.


  1. Alan, I was terribly proud of myself because I made it up on the forum, and you can see by the time/date on the posts that it took me less than four minutes to write it.

  2. A fine poem. An epic poem. Says everything that T.S. Eliot tried to say in The Wasteland, and says it better.

    Punctuation. You've got me thinking. I'd say that, as a general rule, punctuation marks, like football referees, are most effective when least noticed.

    The place of the exclamation mark is inside quotes -- as the name suggests, it indicates that someone is exclaiming. What should never be used -- and I mean never -- is the twee, ingratiating exclamation mark, which tells the reader that the writer is sharing a terribly nice little joke. No one likes being dug in the ribs.

    As for the comma: if in doubt, leave it out. Commas and semi-colons pepper Victorian novels like buckshot, and it ain't pretty.

    Brackets certainly have their place, but my own favourite punctuation mark is the en-dash -- because my thoughts tend to the random and the parenthetic. What do you reckon on the difference in use between the dash and the bracket? Their functions aren't that easy to differentiate.

    Your post inspired me to go through a piece of mine, seeking out brackets and dashes, and I was somewhat alarmed to find the following sentence:'When he retired in 1824 -- his last fight, watched by some 30,000, was the first in which a grandstand (which collapsed) was used -- the title was claimed by Tom Cannon, the Great Gun of Windsor, who was beaten by Jem Ward, the Black Diamond (so-called because he was a coal-heaver to trade, not because he was black).'

    I think I should take a cold shower.

    And finally. How the hell do you make dashes in the Blogger comments box anyway. Damned if I can do it.

  3. Well, there's no need to be horrid about my poem, Iain. (And why have you got the extra 'i' in your name, anyway?)

    That is a terrible sentence. One can see it got away from you and did its own thing, unfettered, rampant. I think what you need is more commas.

    How to do a dash - will this do? No doubt you will think it too small. Picky, picky, picky.

  4. Now I feel awful. What I intended was a joke against the massive unreadability of The Wasteland.

    I think your poem is beautiful, and very clever. I wish I'd written it. The last line in particular is a gem.

    But it's sackcloth'n'ashes again, I fear . . .

  5. Dumb American question. Do you call these things ( ) brackets? We call them parentheses and these [ ] are brackets.

  6. Iain, do not take me too seriously. I've never got on with TS Eliot.

    Alan, that is a useful distinction, which I don't think we have over here - to us they are just brackets and square brackets.