I learned the correct way to use parentheses my junior year of high school. As we received our first graded papers and surreptitiously flipped directly to the last page, bypassing any marginal commentary, our teacher began to talk through a list of common mistakes and stylistic faux pas she had noticed in our papers. Parentheses were at the top of her list: containers of nonessential information, and not, for example, dates. She continued to tell us that parentheses could (and should) be used for the kind of commentary that could liven up a paper, but did not necessarily contribute to the argument.
I didn’t realize it at the time (how could I have?), but I had just received my first lesson in metacommentary. Fish, meet water. Why I have not received more recognition for my innovative twitter hashtags (twinovation? twitovation? standing ovation?), I do not know. Over the past six years of my life, I’ve been able to keep my use of parentheses down to a minimum in my formal writing, but in other more relaxed forms of communication, parentheses are the motor of my ideas.
An oft referenced fact in my unwritten style guide: sign language has a sign for open parentheses. In fact, sign language has a few different signs for open parentheses so that a tangent can have tangents. The benefits of having a visual, spatial, and physical language include an integrated gestural and mental idea tracking system. Similarly, I need parentheses to keep my trains of thought organized. What I love about signed parentheses, though, is that they don’t signify “ignore contents;” in fact, they acknowledge parenthetical ideas as important enough to require an intricate organizational system. A lot of my best thinking occurs inside parentheses and during my quasi-structured digressions.
But now, I’m worried. I’m worried because parentheses, as most of us know them, do still invite readers to “ignore contents.” I’m worried that parentheses are becoming my typographical equivalent of the word “like” or the statement that sounds like a question – the linguistic ways women undermine their own ideas.
On the other hand, linguists have also touted women as innovators of language; new words and constructions tend to arise from female use and invention. The stereotypically female “like” interjection, as explained by Muffy Siegel, is actually a way for all of us to say, “I’m thinking out loud right now” or “This is a new idea that I’m still figuring out how to explain well.”
I hope I’m innovating, but I also know I’m insecure. I use parentheses to toy with ideas that I’m putting in print for the first time, but I also use them to comment on and criticize my own ideas as they spew onto my computer screen. I’m reluctant to edit them out and smooth my writing out to the point that it doesn’t need the extra commentary. I like exposing my experimental thought process.
But what if parentheses have had a permanent effect on my brain? What if I’m allowing myself to be a lazy mess right now because I’m just figuring that this parenthetical part of my life will ultimately find its closing arc? Have I even thought about the fact that I might just come to another opening and then another, burrowing further and further away from clear and confident articulations of myself and what I want?
I’m bad at analogies and I need to go work on my resume.