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Parenthesis is an element of writing used when a writer wants to insert information into a passage that adds detail.

A parenthesis might be necessary, or might not be, to the reader’s understanding of the piece. It is usually qualifying or explanatory. It might also add detail that’s interesting but could be skipped. If removed from the text, it won’t affect the grammatical structure of the passage. These elements of writing are contained within round, or sometimes square, brackets. In other instances, they can also be found inside dashes or commas. 

Parenthesis pronunciation: pah-ren-theh-sees

Parenthesis literary definition and examples


Definition of Parenthesis 

The word parenthesis comes from the Greek meaning “to place.” Parenthesis which usually look like rounded brackets, provide readers with additional information. It is usually qualifying in some way. It adds to the overall experience of the text, but if one were to remove the information in the parenthesis, the grammar and structure of the passage would go unchanged. While parentheses are usually associated with prose, they are also used in poetry and prose poetry. 


Examples of Parenthesis in Literature 

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop 

‘One Art’ is often considered to be Bishop’s best poem. In it, she explores how good she is at “loss.” She converts losing into an art form and explores how, by potentially mastering this skill, we may distance ourselves from the pain of loss. She was no stranger to grief, having lost her mother, father, and a lover to various illnesses. The final stanza of the poem reads: 

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Here, the poet uses parenthesis twice. She spends these lines suggesting the truth of losing and how it’s “not too hard to master,” even if it looks like it. She says one should “Write it!” Here, demonstrating how perhaps writing has been a successful outlet for her to process her grief. 

Read more Elizabeth Bishop poems. 


[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in] by E.E. Cummings 

Cumming’s poetry is noted for its exploration of the limits of writing. He often experimented with grammar, structure, style, and even capitalization. This poem is a great example of the creative ways a writer might use parenthesis. The title provides readers with an example, but there are more in the body of the text. For example, these lines from the second half of the first stanza: 

 i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

Here, there are two very clear examples of parenthesis. With Cummings’s poetry, it’s often necessary to set one’s expectations to the side and rethink how words and punctuation are used. The speaker seems to be telling his lover that all that is good and beautiful in the world has been made for her and her alone. He also confesses that with her, he fears nothing and wants nothing because she is his everything.


what if a much of a which of a wind by E.E. Cummings

This piece speaks on the destruction of the earth and the risk humankind poses to itself. It takes the reader through three disasters, a tornado, a blizzard, and a nuclear apocalypse. One day, the speaker says, humankind will create a disaster that we can’t return from. The first stanza reads as follows: 

what if a much of a which of a wind

gives the truth to summer’s lie;

bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun

and yanks immortal stars awry?

Blow king to beggar and queen to seem

(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)

-when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,

the single secret will still be man

In this stanza, readers can find a great example of parenthesis. Cummings uses the phrase  “(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)” as a way of suggesting that the effects of this first disaster are going to be all-encompassing. Friends and fiends will be one and the same, as will kings and beggars. 

The second stanza contains another example. This time, while speaking about “sleet and snow” and the effects of a blizzard, he uses the line “(blow pity to envy and soul to mind).” In the same way that the previous line reminded readers that no one would escape from the storms, so too does this one remind readers that the entire world is going to change. 

Explore more E.E. Cummings poems. 


Why Do Writers Use Parenthesis? 

Writers use parenthesis when they want to convey information that’s secondary to the main point of their writing. This might be to explain something they’ve already said, add something to it that’s interesting but not necessary. In the examples above, poets use parenthesis smoothly and successfully in their verse, proving that it is not just something that fears in prose writing. Writers, like E.E. Cummings, can experiment with parenthesis and explore the ways that they might benefit change poetic or verse writing. They can provide readers insight into a character’s thoughts and the truth of a situation. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Hypotaxis: the arrangement of constructs in grammar. It refers to the placement of functionally similar although unequal constructions.
  • Hyperbaton: a figure of speech in which the order of words in a sentence or line are rearranged.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information
  • Cumulative Sentence: a sentence that begins with an independent clause and then adds subordinate clauses.


Other Resources 

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