In defence of brackets

Editors (both professional and amateur) have often warned me against using brackets. They are averse to brackets because they view brackets as a sign of indecisiveness and of an addiction to parenthetical digressions. They often suggest commas instead of brackets. Up to a point, their aversion is justified.

Yet commas are sometimes less clear than brackets. This is because a left bracket signals clearly that it opens the parenthesis and a right bracket signals clearly that it closes the parenthesis. In contrast, a comma does not indicate clearly what its role is: opening a parenthetical clause; closing a parenthetical clause or (most commonly) just separating two clauses. As an example, here is a sentence in the Sunday Times today:

Manchester City can replace like for like, apart from Ederson, in goal, Kevin de Bruyne and at centre forward.

Graeme Souness, Sunday Times, 15 August 2021

If you don’t read the text carefully and don’t know much about the footballers named here, it is unclear whether the phrase in goal refers to Ederson, to Kevin de Bruyne or to another player altogether. And even though I do know what positions these players play in, I had to read this sentence twice because the commas make its structure so unclear. Using brackets as follows would have made it much clearer that the phrase refers to Ederson:

Manchester City can replace like for like, apart from Ederson (in goal), Kevin de Bruyne and at centre forward.

So, don’t be afraid to use brackets when they make the text clearer.

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