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Why the Author (Usually (but Not Always)) Eschews Nested Square Brackets

Updated: Jun 11

Are you familiar with the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate in re grammar and usage? It’s a doozy. . . .

The prescriptivists tend to insist on adhering to traditional, well-established guidelines (prescripts) of grammar and usage, with a concern for notions of idealistic norms. In short, they follow the rules. And they believe you should, too.

(Note: I am, when it comes to grammar and usage, usually a prescriptivist. It’s a fun way to be snobby, snooty, etc. I consider it part of my job as an editor.)

The descriptivists, per contra, tend to condone language based not on idealistic norms, but on the way the language has evolved to this day. In the extreme (and, granted, unusual) case, a descriptivist would insist that there is no such thing as a grammar error. Grammar “rules,” such as they are, should follow the contemporary usage of the speakers (and writers) of a language, not the other way around.

(You can read more about the grammar wars in David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster. (You should consider the lobster while you’re in there. I also recommend Bryan A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage, the book (ostensibly) under review in Wallace’s essay (a book, I’m happy to admit, I’ve (jubilantly) read from cover to cover).))

Of course, most editors (and writers) end up somewhere in the middle (snooty editors closer to the prescriptivist pole, nonexpert (so-called) writers closer to the descriptivist pole). Grammar and usage is spectrumal (i.e., on a spectrum (I think I made the word up (spectral does not work (having to do with specters or spectra, not spectrums (according to Wiktionary))))). Grammar rules change over time, and there’s no exact moment when an old rule (one espoused (and perhaps extolled) by the prescriptivists), becomes standard usage (long after the rule was espoused (and perhaps extolled) by the descriptivists). Bryan Garner (my idol) even has a numerical rating system to show where rules currently lie on the spectrum.

All of the above (and to get to the fucking point!) leads me to an admission:

When it comes to nested parentheses, I am not a prescriptivist.

The Chicago Manual of Style (style guide nonpareil) “prefers square brackets as parentheses within parentheses, usually for bibliographic purposes” (6.101). First, I say, screw that! I believe that, when nesting parentheses, a writer may—indeed should (see? I’m still a prescriptivist)—use round parentheses when nesting. (Second, and parenthetically, I point out the softness of CMS’s prescript, insofar as they use the word “prefers,” not to mention the stipulation: “for bibliographic purposes.”)

But why contravene what I (reluctantly) admit is the norm? Allow me to explain. . . .


Grammar god Garner condones round nested parentheses. They are “not only acceptable but customary.” In fact, they appear “throughout this book” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, p. 682). Seriously, shouldn’t I just end this essay here? My work is done. QED.

But go on I shall.

I also found the following on Wikipedia, under (interestingly) “Brackets”: “Parentheses may be nested (generally with one set (such as this) inside another set).” But, you know, it’s Wikipedia. Call it, imprimatur-light.


Square brackets have an actual use (beyond their (alleged) one in parenthetical nesting): when quoting, square brackets indicate text that is not part of the actual quote. That is, brackets enclose “editorial interpolations, corrections, explanations, translations, or comments” in quoted material (CMS, 5.128 (14th ed.)). This is important. It’s a good and sensible use of brackets.

But using brackets generally for nested parentheses creates pote—

(I interrupt my essay for a quick and legit parenthesis. Yes, the use of the word parenthesis (or parentheses) throughout this essay is ambiguous, sometimes meaning “an explanatory word, phrase, or sentence inserted in a passage,” and other times meaning “one or both of the curved marks ( ) used in writing and printing to enclose a parenthetical expression” (the definitions are from Merriam-Webster). I am sorry for the confusion; the language (as always) is under construction. I will do my best to maintain clarity.)

Where was I? Ah yes. . . .

But using brackets generally for nested parentheses creates potential ambiguity. Imagine quoting the following:

His essential question (he asks several [no fewer than a thousand], but one is of foremost importance) is this: Can an omnipotent deity create a suitcase that is too heavy for said omnipotent deity to lift?

Here’s my quote:

[Wallace’s] essential question (he asks several [no fewer than a thousand], but one is of foremost importance) is this: Can an omnipotent deity create a suitcase that is too heavy for said being to lift?

Now, if one were only to look at my quote, one would be left wondering: have I added the word “Wallace’s”? the phrase “no fewer than a thousand”? both? or neither? See the problem?

If the original text had been written as below, we would have no ambiguity in my quotation:

His essential question (he asks several (no fewer than a thousand), but one is of foremost importance) is this: Can an omnipotent deity create a suitcase that is too heavy for said omnipotent deity to lift?

And my new quote:

[Wallace’s] essential question (he asks several (no fewer than a thousand), but one is of foremost importance) is this: Can an omnipotent deity create a suitcase that is too heavy for said omnipotent deity to lift?

It’s clear now that I’m adding “Wallace’s”—and only “Wallace’s.” I think that’s reason enough to stick to standard (round) parentheses when nesting (unless adding to a quotation). Again, my job is done.

But go on I shall.


Lest you accuse me of unbridled prescriptivism (which would be ironic, since basically every style guide councils against nested round parentheses (not to mention the overuse of parentheses in general (which latter is beyond the scope of this essay))), allow me to cross the aisle for a moment.

Joseph O’Neil (best-selling author (Netherland), PEN/Faulkner Award–winner, and damn good writer) is, as far as I know, the paragon of nested round parentheses:

(Wrongfully, I withheld from her my developing interest in room theory. . . . (A footnote: when we quarreled, which wasn’t often, we would be in the same room. . . . (This partly explains my resistance to moving to a larger place . . . (As it happens, my wrongdoing in this specific instance . . . . all’s well that ends well.))))

—Joseph O’Neill, The Dog, p. 71–72

(The above goes for around a page—hence my elisions.)

My point, of course, is that here we have three nested parentheses (four parentheses in toto), in a work by a major author, produced by a major publisher (Pantheon Books (a division of Penguin (a division, I guess, now, of Random House))), and nary a square bracket in sight.

One more example. In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (a great depository of interesting and superbly confusing things), on page 75, I came across an example of how to notate “laugher within a word”:

(e.g., porkc(h)ho(h)ps).

Routledge, friends! Good enough for me.

For the record, I’ve heard that Faulkner nested with round parentheses, but in my labored and frenzied flipping through his many books on my shelf, I discovered none of these lofty punctuational aeries (rare bird(nest)s, these). Alas, I will update this essay upon their discovery. [Update: See William T. Vollmann, The Royal Family, p. 670! See Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, passim!]


The style guides would like us to nest with square brackets, as mentioned. Some would like us to proceed to curly brackets, if we were to nest a second time. But unlike quotation marks, which, when nesting, can be toggled back and forth in perpetuity, where do we go after the curly bracket? Back to the beginning?

([{( . . . )}])

Or perhaps, less like a merry-go-round and more like a seesaw, back to square brackets?

([{[( . . . )]}])

But isn’t this a little ridiculous? And is it even necessary? Does anyone really have trouble following my nests within nests within nests above? (And if so, isn’t this (forgive me), kind of the point (and part of the (joyful (and ecstatic)) fun of it all?)

A well-known proverb: Why use many tools, when one may suffice?

Sure, I may have made that up, but I do think the simple arc (and its simple twin) of the lovely round parenthesis gets (get) the job done just fine.

(Quick parenthesis: I do realize that in standard mathematical notation, nested square and curly brackets are frequently used—and perhaps this makes some utilitarian sense. In math, one does not have the benefit of syntax, context, and other punctuation to figure out what’s going on. Order of operation (often working from the inside out) is important. Bridges fall down when someone gets the math wrong. Not likely in a prose poem.

(But even in math, I must point out, we sometimes see nested round parentheses, as with functional grouping (e.g., f(g(h(x)))). In short, I don’t consider the (not always consistent) use of nested square brackets (etc.) in math a vitiation of my arguments herein. End of parenthesis.)


I have saved the best for last.

It has been written that Lequeu believed the ideal form could be found in the curving outline of a (woman’s) thigh. Michelangelo likened aesthetic perfection to the sinuous shape of a candle flame (which reminds me of an accumulation of round parentheses). Joyce: “Beauty: it curves, curves are beauty” (from somewhere in Ulysses, I forget where (nerdily enough, this was from memory)). Gordon in Esthetics (1909) states, somewhat ineloquently, that “curves are in general felt to be more beautiful than straight lines. They are more graceful and pliable, and avoid the harshness of some straight lines.” In his famous early–twentieth century experiments on angularity, Lundholm found that his test subjects associated angles with feelings of anger, etc., whereas said test subjects associated curved lines with feelings of calmness, etc. I could keep going. (I found online academic research papers on this stuff. Trust me: curved lines (which happen to (partially) take the shape of most cakes) take the cake.)

So this is it. I admit it. It’s that simple:

I prefer the way they look!

This is my superstructure, my ideology. All the rest of my evidence and demonstrations, my persuasions and entreaties—the base, if you will, of my materialistic productions—I’ve created post facto (pace Marx). I build my foundations, from the clouds.

But in a world of strife and turmoil, of chaos and misery, shouldn’t we all clamor for the gentle rondure of round nested parentheses? They are free of sharp corners, free of pinpointing peril. Nested round parentheses (like hugging lovers (like spooning spooners)) are peace and love. Join me, my friends, for this is a revolution. Cast away the harshly angular square bracket (not to mention the rudely pointing curly bracket). Embrace (or let us say cuddle (or nuzzle even)) the round parenthesis!


Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.

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