Monday, January 27, 2014

Just Say No to Passive Aggressive Parentheses

An article in the recent New Yorker shows that even well edited writing continues the abuse of parentheses. Here’s the full paragraph, taken from The Financial Page, written by James Surowiecki, titled The Cult of Overwork:

If the benefits of working fewer hours are this clear, why has it been so hard for businesses to embrace the idea? Simple economics certainly plays a role: in some cases, such as law firms that bill by the hour, the system can reward you for working longer, not smarter. And even if a person pulling all-nighters is less productive than a well-rested substitute would be, it’s still cheaper to pay one person to work a hundred hours a week than two people to work fifty hours apiece. (In the case of medicine, residents work long hours not just because it’s good training but also because they’re a cheap source of labor.) On top of this, the productivity of most knowledge workers is much harder to quantify than that of, say, an assembly-line worker. So, as Bob Pozen, a former president of Fidelity Management and the author of “Extreme Productivity,” a book on slashing work hours, told me, “Time becomes an easy metric to measure how productive someone is, even though it doesn’t have any necessary connection to what they achieve.”

Every sentence in the paragraph above, except for the one within the parentheses, is justified—if only by common sense. But then there’s that one-off claim about medical residents being a cheap source of labor. No reason, no evidence. Are we to suppose the sentence gets a free dodge by way of its parentheses? After all, it’s just an aside and not even part of the article’s main text.

No, parentheses, like all punctuation, exist for clarity, not for shielding writers from the responsibility of defending their ideas. Shoving words between a pair of parentheses doesn’t make those words any less important or plain to see. Dear reader, please, please don’t use parentheses for passive aggression. Either leave those claims naked in your prose without special punctuation, or defend them, or don’t commit them to words at all.

By the way, I’ve got nothing against James Surowiecki or The New Yorker. Rather, this post is part of my ongoing crusade against the overuse and misuse of parentheses.


Josh Wilson said...

Parenthetically, (I would add, in a most likely misguided attampt at humor) I know of a great novelist who uses parentheses quite a bit. (His name is Gene Wolfe.)

Craig Brandenburg said...

Josh— Anyone who's regularly published in the New Yorker is pretty good at smithing words, too, but even good writers sometimes follow the stupid fashions of their times. Isaac Asimov often used parentheses to make unsubstantiated claims—warts on an otherwise transparent writing style. Probably, Asimov had a hard time not committing his thoughts into words.

If I were to read one Gene Wolfe book, what should it be? Keep in mind the audience.

Josh Wilson said...

52Good question. His style is very diverse, as is his subject matter. I'll give you a choice, from the books of his that I have read:

Four-in-one epic choice:
"The book of the Long Sun" (Now published in two volumes, but originally 4.) You may call this cheating, but it's like recommending Lord of the Rings: it's really one book, right?

Easy-and-fun fantasy choice:
The Sorcerer's House. You can probably read this one in a couple days.

Craig Brandenburg said...

Josh— Thanks! The Phoenix Public Library has The Sorcerer's House, which I added to my list. I'll keep an eye out for the first book of the Long Sun series.