I. Expectations Lost and Formed in the Nineties
In the dwindling months of the last millennium, while my parents were ridiculing an uncle of mine for fretting (Alpo, pallets of bottled water, gas masks) over Y2K, I spent a lot of time on the internet.
I liked typing—in lieu of talking on the phone—with my friends. We used AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM), where no one had to worry about mothers pressing their ears to doors. If one’s mother approached the family computer with the express intention of snooping, one simply minimized the chat window with a click, convo hidden, waiting. Though you might be typing in your living room, trying to ignore the sounds of your little sister’s penchant for Barney , you were also in a virtual space—separate, friended, apart from your family. You were in parenthesis.
At the time, the word parenthesis signaled to me the punctuation marks only. I had no clue that it was also a rhetorical structure—an interval, an interlude, the text crammed between those two overgrown, upended commas; no clue that parenthesis might mean only one of those marks, that parentheses was the plural. I had no clue that Virginia Woolf saw something potentially transformative in the punctuation (or was it the rhetorical move?) when she asked in her diary, while composing To the Lighthouse : “Could I do it in parenthesis? So that one had the sense of reading two things at the same time?”
Since those AIM-ing days, “in a parenthesis” has seemed to me an apt simile for much of life. How often we are of two minds, inhabiting multiple spheres (and how often those spheres contradict or coalesce or cohabitate and conjugate until they’ve created further spheres, which have a quality of airlessness or impetuousness or direness, all qualities imparted by the parentheses, which have the power to create around their text a special porosity). How appropriate that the marks notating when a sentence is conveying a world-inside-a-world are shaped as if to outline its contours.
Lately I’ve been wondering not about the parentheses’ aura, their mood, their symbolic voodoo, but about the punctuation mark(s), when we use them and why, what information we feel is best conveyed through their deployment. At an online teaching workshop two weeks ago, a colleague of mine volunteered to read from a PowerPoint slide projected for the assembled. We were all university employees, sipping okay coffee, chewing hardened banana Laffy Taffys that had come in “the swag bags” (as the facilitator kept repeating), breakfasting on bagels and Danishes (Danishes with jelly centers so sunny that one woman at my table questioned if it were egg yolk).
Here’s what the screen displayed:
“The online teacher is able to use observational data (e.g., tracking data in electronic courses, Web logs, email) to monitor course progress and effectiveness.”
Here’s what the colleague read:
“The online teacher is able to use observational data to monitor course progress and effectiveness.”
At that point in the affair, I grew annoyed with the colleague and the faculty workshop (on a summer Tuesday(!?), the discussion of the state of education, the eye-grating backlighting of screens, the cotton-ballishness of the food-service bagel I’d chewed through as though it were my own arm and I a she-wolf snared in the woods). Why does what happens in parentheses stay in parentheses? How can punctuation absolve a speaker—or, maybe worse, a reader—of processing certain words? Why don’t parentheses warrant vocalization?
(This writer abandoned the workshop, set off to find out.)
II. Imagine It: A Castle of Punctuation
A chummy warning (shouted by bullhorn): If you want to learn about the history of a piece of punctuation, don’t do your studying in the sun. Don’t trek to a library a couple miles away on a ninety-degree day. Or do that, but don’t wear flip-flops (unless you like cloqués). Or do that, but don’t expect to stay awake upon returning and hydrating with pinot grigio.
All that to say I find the history of punctuation maddeningly fascinating, at least in the hands of M.B. Parkes, whose Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West constitutes—from what I’ve gathered—a text that itself is a giant parenthesis: occlusive and brain-wrenching and seminal. If you crave a teasing, Parkes will oblige: “Punctuation is and always has been a personal matter,” he writes in the introduction, leading you to believe that, despite your blistered feet and sunburnt brow, you’ll be able to comprehend the sum total of this work. (You will not. His are sentences that, like turrets rising from the sand, seem structurally sound as you work with them only to mysteriously crumble when your back is turned or your eyes close.) And yet, post-slumber, on I soldiered.
Parkes’s book will teach you—or remind you—that punctuation “is a phenomenon of written language,” that words were not always separated (texts were written in scriptio continua , which, meritoriously, “presented the reader with a neutral text”), that another name for capital letters is litterae notabilores and that even capitalization was a major development seeing as, until the middle of the last millennium, texts were “pointed” by scribes and slaves and monks. If you feel bad about having your editor check your commas, don’t: Remind yourself that, for most of time, writers wouldn’t have bothered with such menial work.
Perhaps I should have skipped over antiquity and the “Carolingian Renovatio ” and gone straight to the part where humanists come in. Right about the twelfth century is where our cast of punctuating players (the ones available on your laptop or smartphone keyboard) takes the stage. Colons, semicolons, exclamation marks (AKA exclamativus )? Done x 3. And, yes, parentheses. In a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it bit of brevity, Parkes asserts, “parentheses isolate the parenthesis.”
III. Radical . . . Moons?
In Glyph: A Visual Exploration of Punctuation Marks and Other Typographic Symbols , which bills itself as “a cabinet of linguistic curiosities and typographic delights,” parentheses fall under the parent category of brackets along with square brackets (AKA crotchets) or curly brackets (AKA braces). They’re characterized as “[behaving] like radical commas, setting apart information that is supplementary to a sentence.” With its chartreuse endpapers and neon orange section breaks, Glyph* is the polar opposite of Pause and Effect ; it’s no surprise that this “visual exploration” doesn’t serve up Parkes’s synonym for parentheses: lunulae .
It’s the sort of word I expect to learn from Vladimir Nabokov—Latinate, almost palindromatic, ornamental enough to suggest an encrusted comb or fascinator for some perished Russian princess’s coif—and, given V.N.’s proclivity for the parenthetical (more later), it’s fitting that lunula , in addition to being the term for the crescent moon paleness on a fingernail, is also the term that Erasmus (per Parkes) gave to parentheses. Lunula is a single mark: ( . Lunulae, plural: ( ) .
The word is so handy: Alone or in a pair, lunulae resemble the moon. (And, in truth, one might spend hours mooning over lunulae, their shapes and representations—as less-than or greater-than signs, a squadron of sharp right angles; one might wonder over the disambiguation of parentheses and brackets; one might cheer for how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century “printers continued to use [crotchets and parentheses] in contexts where display was inappropriate. Single crotchets [ and parentheses ( were used to indicate runovers . . . to separate stage directions for texts in printed editions of plays. Facing crotchets were used to enclose interpolations . . . parentheses . . . to enclose page numbers.”)
Indeed, lunulae lynchpin the work of Dr. Alistair Brown. In his essay, “Parentheses and Ambiguity in Poetry of the Twentieth Century,” Brown asserts:
A prose sentence can be intercluded by lunulae. In poetry the lunulae are integrated. The test of whether a lunulae is truly a parenthesis is if its contents can be removed from the text without this affecting the movement of the piece in totality . . . within a poem lunulae are as inalterable as the other substance of the verse such as its metre or its vocabulary. To remove any lunulae from the contents of the poem is to fundamentally, and destructively, alter the nature of the poem.
And yet, to preserve the sense for which Woolf strove (“of reading two things at the same time”), mustn’t the removal of the contents of the lunulae within prose also be impossible? To acknowledge simultaneity, mustn’t both two things be, on some rubric, fundamental?
IV. The (P, L) Moment—and Other Routes to Modernism
How writers use parentheses and how readers treat parenthesis is often at odds—and the results are potentially work-altering, voice-stripping, soul-leeching. Hard to believe as it may seem, this listener did indeed miss the specificity of “e.g., tracking data in electronic courses, Web logs, email” during her online teaching workshop.
While often burdened with utilitarian matter (dates, translations, MLA citations), parentheses just as frequently inject a piece of writing with the messy glitter of life. And there may be no finer example than the first parenthes(i/e)s in Lolita :
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set . . .
So often in fiction, parentheses do provide those “pocket[s] of warmth.” And to read Nabokov is to study the pockets, to examine the encyclopedia of the parentheses’ uses. See citations in Pale Fire . See maiden name “(born Vanessa van Ness)” and year “(1919)” in Lolita . See, too, in Lolita , a perfect equilibrium in a paragraph, like this one that begins Chapter 3:
Annabel was, like the writer, of mixed parentage: half-English, half-Dutch, in her case. I remember her features far less distinctly today than I did a few years ago, before I knew Lolita. There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: “honey-colored skin,” “thin arms,” “brown bobbed hair,” “long lashes,” “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).
Contrary to a claim from an online grammar lesson courtesy of Capital Community Colleg e that “parentheses tend to de-emphasize text,” Nabokov’s parentheses are showy and performative, in this instance shining a light on Humbert Humbert as he opens up the lockets of his past, revealing first poor, “general” Annabel and then the “little ghost in natural colors,” Lolita. Together, the parentheses distill the paragraph’s third and most winding statement; each acts as a floating afterthought radiating from the opening two declarations.
There’s a wicked cheek to the parentheses in Lolita . If Nabokov is the twentieth-century jester in the court of the lunulae, then Woolf must surely be the queen.
So sartorially synonymous with Woolf are parentheses that the punctuation haunts Michael Cunningham’s The Hours . In an essay on this phenomenon, The Guardian’s John Mullan writes that parentheses “for the rendering of the oddity of consciousness . . . can be a novelist’s most important resource.” Indeed, this is what Parkes’s terms “mirror[ing] the structure of thought.”
But Woolf does not limit parentheses to her free indirect discourse’s most pavonine displays of stream-of-consciousness. In To the Lighthouse , Woolf uses parentheses to deliver crucial information. The juxtaposition of the punctuation’s typical purpose (commenting, adding, providing “de-emphasized information”) with its cocooned, crucial information makes the following passages from the novel’s second part, “Time Passes,” continually knock the wind from the reader:
“[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]”
“[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]”
And nothing can be more dizzying than:
“[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”
Surely, in an oral reading situation, this information could not be omitted, could it?
V. Simultaneities: 1690-2014
No punctuation begs more historical consideration than the parentheses, which can, as Woolf and Nabokov demonstrate, withstand single years and world wars. It seems natural that, in addition to looking at the origin of our punctuation, we too must consider its future.
If the advent of the printing press stabilized representations of punctuation, then the computer and the smart phone stand to destabilize our pointing, too. Our punctuation continues to evolve (this writer found herself in a minor panic at the prospect of a world without periods ): nothing new. In 1690, John Locke published “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in which he proposed: “Propriety of speech is that which gives our Thoughts entrance in other Men’s Minds.”
Still, there in the rearview mirror is Lolita , reminding us how capricious propriety is. Punctuation is flexible, generous, bending and morphing to its users’ needs—and whims, the ideas they want to, as Locke might have it, give “[give] . . . entrance.” We might turn to the film industry: In 2015, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) became the first movie with a parenthetical in the title to win (or be nominated for) an Oscar. (Look closer, too, at that title, which flunks the lunulae test—excising the parenthesis leaves one with Birdman, or .)
And, of course, we might examine emoji.
Back in those Y2K-ish days, the other thing I liked to do on the internet was visit the message boards on a website called Something Fishy. An eating disorder recovery community run by a Canadian couple, Something Fishy was my catnip. Though I’d been in therapy for eighteen months by the time the year 2000 announced itself with all the impact of a shoulder shrug, I didn’t know other people with eating disorders. Something Fishy changed that.
What did I post on Something Fishy? I don’t remember. What I do remember is the rhetoric and grammar of those fishbowls. On message boards I learned what a trigger was. I learned to ### out pounds and calories. I learned to use stickers, colorful pics of guppies and stars, moons and suns, twinkling lights and daisy bouquets, tools I’d need later to artfully arrange a string of emoji into eye-pleasing and layered communiqués. I learned to chat with other “Fishies,” women, girls my age, who also had eating disorders (EDs). We sympathized, bared our hearts and brains, bandied demonstratives like “hon” and “sweetie,” “baby.” We were gentle, as though our every clause were both security blanket and stiff (calorie-free) drink. We sent lots-of-love—and hugs, even if in real life most of us were probably chronic hug-bristlers (hugs being, in the ED world, barely more than bone counts). We denoted embraces like this:
(hugs) or ((hugs)) or ((((((((((((hugs))))))))))))
We didn’t know that our amplifying punctuation dated back to the eighth century, when Irish scribes used a similar system (of commas—e.g., , and ,, and ,,,) to indicate, per Parkes, “a hierarchy of importance.” Nor did we know that “in Irish manuscripts punctuation and decoration become inextricably linked.” We knew only—without articulating it anywhere—that we felt (at least) “two things at the same time,” alone and together.