Can You Put Parentheses Inside Parentheses?

Can you put parentheses inside parentheses? Maybe you can, but many grammarians will loathe you for it. Instead, you should use square brackets.

Keep reading as I show you how to insert square brackets within another set of parentheses. Learn what the APA and MLA say about enclosing another part of parenthetical material.

What Is a Parenthesis?

Parentheses (()) is a pair of punctuation marks that add additional information to a sentence. For example:

  • Janice (my friend’s cousin) left her bag downstairs.
  • The country’s economy declined during the pandemic. (See Table 6A.)

Parentheses Within Parentheses

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Double parentheses in writing are a common issue I see all the time. For instance, within a parenthetical element that cites your source, you might want to include another parenthetical element like an abbreviation.

Fortunately, you can set off material from another parenthetical material using a different punctuation symbol. The square brackets ([]) exist to make your writing clearer. Both MLA and APA recommend this symbol to avoid overusing parentheses. For example:

  • Incorrect: I asked for help with my library card (I went to the City Library Center (CLC)) and then saw Jenna.
  • Correct: I asked for help with my library card (I went to the City Library Center [CLC]) and then saw Jenna.
  • Incorrect: The museum (Museum of Fine Arts (Lier)) will open next year.
  • Correct: The museum (Museum of Fine Arts [Lier]) will open next year.

MLA states that if a title in parentheses requires a parenthetical citation, use square brackets. APA also suggests creating a double enclosure in the text. For example:

  • Incorrect: (True generosity includes fighting to destroy the reasons behind false charity (Freire, 1921) and creating more realistic solutions.)
  • Correct: (True generosity includes fighting to destroy the reasons behind false charity [Freire, 1921] and creating more realistic solutions.)

You can also use semicolons or commas to separate citations from the parenthetical text. For example:

  • Incorrect: Gender is socially constructed, while sex is defined by biological characteristics (e.g., genetics, anatomy, and physiology) (Mayer, 2010).
  • Correct: Gender is socially constructed, while sex is defined by biological characteristics (e.g., genetics, anatomy, and physiology; Mayer, 2010).

But when using APA citations, it’s better to use commas around the date instead of brackets. For example:

  • Incorrect: (Some critics, like Shaw [2018], say Science is a network instead of a branch of knowledge.)
  • Correct: (Some critics, like Shaw, 2018, say Science is a network instead of a branch of knowledge.)

Make sure to have your brackets in the same type as the surrounding text. If it’s in italics, keep the brackets italicized. For example:

  • (The lyrics [he did it] serve as a hook to intrigue the audience.)

Square brackets are also common in mathematical equations with the same purpose. We use them for the second level of enclosure. But this time, we add them outside the parentheses. For three levels, we add curly brackets outside. For example:

  • 3[x +4(3x + 7)] = 600

Make Your Sentences Readable

Enclosing parenthetical material is a common issue in academic writing, especially when citing sources. When I was an editor, this was something I corrected on a regular basis.

Using square brackets instead of parentheses within parenthetical material will make your sentences clearer. Make sure to follow the guidelines provided by APA or MLA, depending on your style guide.

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