“Parentheses” (and quotations)


Joakim Nådell: Axel Towers, København, Denmark, 2018

by William Flesch

Geoffrey Nunberg (somewhere) makes the point that parentheses and quotations follow similar typographical, and, you could say syntactic rules: If you open a parentheses (with a lunula) you have to close it (with another, facing the opposite way).  Likewise if you open a direct quotation (with raised, inverted commas (auf Englisch, zumindest), you have to close it (with reverted commas, but at the top of the line as well (das gilt auch für Deutsch für die „Gänsefüßchen”)). (Look closely at what surrounds the words “inverted commas;” there’s also a more minor question about punctuation, which can sometimes go inside a closing mark without suggesting that it’s part of the original inscription, whereas parenthetical insertions are treated as either part of a sentence, so that there is no punctuation mark just before the last lunula, or they are sentences in themselves, as here, so that the parenthetical at the end of the previous sentence is part of a longer sequence of words and therefore does not itself end with a punctuation mark, whereas this parenthesis is a stand-alone sentence, so it does.)

Another typographical convention that intuits the similarity is the rule that when you break a quotation into paragraphs, you open each paragraph with inverted commas, but only put the reverted commas at the end of the entire quotation.  (Cf. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as a good example of the Hogarth Press’s conformity to this rule.)  Similarly, parentheticals that are broken into paragraphs have opening (concave) lunulae at the beginning of every paragraph but closing (convex) lunulae only at the end of the entire parenthesis (I am using “concave” and “convex” as understood intuitively, perhaps: the opening lunula opens an interior space: the closing lunula pushes us onward into the flow of the larger discourse).

I was thinking about this the other day, and realizing that there is an interesting and symmetrical difference between quotations and parentheses.  A parenthetical phrase (like this one) may refer to things outside of it, parts of the sentence it inhabits (say) that have no reciprocal need for the parenthesis (which is why it’s parenthetical; look at how cleverly Pope allows you so skip parentheses in The Rape of the Lock without disturbing the rhyme scheme (though parenthetical phrases will often contribute (“(not in vain)” (The Essay on Criticism)) to the meter)).

Quotations on the other hand must not refer to the quoting context, since they precede it logically and temporally.  (“Scare quoted” material may, I suppose, but here they’re pretty much meant to quote the context.)  So parentheses are outward-looking, supplemental to the discourse in which they appear, but quotation is inward-looking. The quoting context is the late-coming supplement, unregarded by the haughty indifference of the quoted words.

About the Author

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).

Publication Rights

First published in Arcade. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.


Photograph reproduced under the Unsplash License.

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