A hierarchy of methods to add extra detail to a sentence, from “the info is super duper important” to “I kind of want to mention it but it’s definitely far from essential”:
1. No punctuation
If there’s no punctuation, a piece of information becomes integral to the sentence and seems important. Without it, we’d be missing something key. Consider:
The top hat-wearing President arrived at high noon.
We could remove “top hat-wearing,” but the picture created in your mind would be very different; it would even feel like we’re talking about another President.1For the sake of completeness, here’s an extra level, called level 0, which probably should have gone first. But it belongs outside the hierarchy, in my opinion. So now you get to read level 0 in this awkward spot between levels 1 and 2.
0. Separate clauses or sentences
When two pieces of information are separated by something like a semicolon or period, they’re given equality; neither is more important than the other. Consider:
“The President arrived at high noon; he was wearing a top hat.”
“The President arrived at high noon. He was wearing a top hat.”
Here, the arrival of the President isn’t more important than the top hat. The rest of the list, below, assumes that isn’t true. The top hat is just added detail to the main idea of the President arriving at noon.
Commas serve many purposes, but one of them is to break the flow of a sentence to add extra info. The break, however, is minimal. Commas are subtle, like a short breath.
The President, wearing a top hat, arrived at high noon.
Compared to the previous example, the top hat has been relegated to the status of important but not essential detail.
Em-dashes2which by the way are the symbol “—”, not “–” and certainly not “-” or, God Most High forbid, “–“ 3hey, another digression: did you know the “em” in “em-dash” stands for the letter M, representing the size of the dash? Unlike what some poor souls mistakenly believe, it doesn’t mean “emphasis dash”. are sort of a middle ground between commas and parentheses, and can replace either. They’re striking, but also make it obvious the info is outside the normal flow of the sentence.
The President — who was wearing a top hat — arrived at high noon.
Wow! A top hat! So striking! We could do without it — it’s clearly identified as extra detail — but the em-dashes draw attention to it. Use em-dashes if you want the reader to actually notice.
Parentheses have a similar effect but are more delicate. While the em-dash is crashing the party and getting everyone’s attention, the parenthesis is instead just lounging quietly in a corner, happy to talk to you if you want, but making no special effort to come to you.
As a friend of mine puts it, parentheses are like a mid-sentence whisper.
The President (donning his famous top hat) arrived at high noon.
A parenthetical statement is like a thread running in parallel, a branch leaving the main sentence and rejoining it later. It gives the writing a more complex structure, which of course can be either good or bad.
Ah, the footnote.4Also called endnote if it’s at the end of a book. A little asterisk, or number, or other symbol, timidly tugging at your sleeve and saying, “Hey, there’s some other info I can give you on this, but it’s kind of outside the scope of this sentence. Read it only if you truly want to… Actually, forget I said anything. It’s not that interesting anyway. If it were interesting, it’d be included in the main text with any of the above four methods, am I right? Haha, bye!”
The President arrived at high noon.5Intriguingly for an elected head of state in the 21st century, the President was wearing a top hat.
Did you click the footnote? Did you feel compelled to? Or did you just feel like ignoring it, dismissing it as irrelevant information?
If you did click it, you may have noticed it was longer than the top hat info in the other examples. Footnotes give a writer more freedom. In fact, the lower we are in this hierarchy, the more freedom the writer has, because the farthest we are from the main sentence. But then the reader also has more freedom — freedom to ignore the piece of information.
Is it worth using the bottom of the hierarchy, parentheses and footnotes, at all?
These methods clearly indicate that a piece of information is less important. According to style guides, the reader should be allowed to skip them without changing their understanding of the text. So the writer might as well just skip them too. Right?
As always, the answer is “it depends.”
It depends on the genre, for one thing. If you’re copywriting, you really just want to show the key info, and show it in big bold letters. No room for parentheses or footnotes.6Or so I assume; I’m not a copywriter. If you’re writing fiction, digressions are likely to detract too much from the story, as you know if you’ve read a scholarly edition of something like The Odyssey that is full of endnotes to tell you that translators don’t agree on how to translate οἶνοψ πόντος exactly.7It is usually translated as wine-dark sea, if you must know. Of course, some fiction writers use them anyway. Notoriously, the novel Infinite Jest includes “388 endnotes, some with footnotes of their own.”
What you’re reading right now belongs to the age-old genre of “informal blog post with some microhumor,” for which parentheses and footnotes work very well. At least so I think. Obviously, whether a writer should use them also depends enormously on their writing style. They’re an extra color in the writer’s palette; another tool in the toolbox. You may or may not want to use them.
As the astute reader will have noticed, parentheses and footnotes tend to show up quite a lot in my own writing.8I am going a little overboard with this essay, but I that’s on purpose. I really like them. I think they’re a super useful tool. So I even installed a WordPress plugin to make it easy to include and read footnotes, like this.9I don’t actually have anything to say in this footnote. Have a bright, wonderful day!
(I also sometimes put entire paragraphs between parentheses. Like this. An entire paragraph! This is kind of a middle ground between a simple parenthetical phrase or sentence, and a full-fledged footnote. I love these paragraphs, whether they’re mine or other writers’.)
The reason I use parentheses and footnotes aplenty is that I really like them as a reader, too.
Not everyone does, though. Some readers don’t like parentheses and actually — the nerve! — quickly skim their contents until they get to the closing bracket. Style guides will warn you of this. They always tell you to use parentheses “sparingly.” Or even avoid them altogether (source):
Because they are so jarring to the reader, parentheses should be avoided whenever possible.
If removing a parenthetical note changes the meaning of the sentence, it should not be in parentheses.
Some of us love to use parentheses. Unfortunately, some readers ignore anything that appears in parentheses, so don’t put important information in parentheses if you can help it.
Even those who do use parentheses and footnotes, and use them well, can feel guilty about it. Here’s Scott Alexander, in an essay about nonfiction writing advice:
I agonize a lot about where it is versus isn’t appropriate to break the flow of ideas. Sometimes I use the really ugly solution of having an entire paragraph within parentheses, as if to say “I really wanted to bring this up here, but remember it’s not actually part of the structure of this argument!”
(this is a good meta-level example. I used the word “actually” there, and I wanted to point it out as an example of what I was talking about before, but doing that would break the flow of this whole argument about how you shouldn’t break the flow of things. So, in accordance with the prophecy, into a paragraph-long set of parentheses it goes. I’m starting to think maybe I’m not the best person to be giving writing advice…)
Scott writes amazingly and definitely is one of the best people to give advice. In fact, I feel a twinge of excitement whenever I get to a parenthetical paragraph in one of his essays. Where other people may think “hey, this is irrelevant, I’ll just skip,” I think “huh, this is outside the normal flow of ideas, but he still chose to include it… Must be extra interesting!”
This is the core idea of this essay so I’ll make it bold: Parentheses and footnotes are fun because they are acknowledged digressions.
A lot of the fun in life comes from digressions — of stepping outside the bounds of the ordinary, of skipping class to go on an adventure, of following a Wikipedia rabbit hole instead of finishing the article you were reading. Of course, digressions can also be distractions. But when they are acknowledged with punctuation signs, we, as readers, are warned. We are free to either skip it, or dive straight into this part that the writer thought was so good he couldn’t bring himself to take it out.
Think about it: writers are always encouraged to cut out the boring parts. They’re also encouraged to cut out parenthetical statements, as the styling guides say. So, to survive, a parenthetical statement should be the opposite of boring; otherwise the selective pressure against them would be too strong.
(Or, well, it should be. Not all writing is good, and boring digressions happen just as superfluous adverbs and stale metaphors do.)
Also, as I mentioned earlier, the inherently skippable nature of acknowledged digressions means that the writer gets more freedom. More freedom tends to mean more risk-taking. And more risk-taking, in writing as elsewhere, often means better rewards.
Footnotes, especially, allow a writer to experiment. What’s the worst that can happen? That the reader just goes back to the body of the text? That’s… perfectly fine, right? So, have fun: Write in a totally different style.10Indeed, one of the crucial sources of enjoyment in the consumption of literate material is so-called “code-switching” between linguistic registers ranging from the familiar or, even, the vulgar, to the formal. It is commonly believed that a single piece of written work should utilize a single type of phraseology; yet the juxtaposition of words pertaining to greatly differing registers may augment the vitality of the discourse to such an extent that readers may become elated. Add colors, different fonts, emoji.11🌈 color sometimes looks unserious but it can be so much fun! 🌈 Include super technical detail.12My footnote plugin is called Modern Footnotes. To insert a footnote, I add the tags [ mfn ] and [ /mfn ] (without spaces) to the text of my essay in WordPress. Attempt to be funny.
That last one is important. Being funny is a great quality to have in most writing, but it’s risky business — a joke always has a chance of falling flat. It’s not easy to write comedy or, as I try to do, microhumor;13What is microhumor? It is tiny dashes of writing that will not make the reader laugh, exactly, but will bring a smile to his or her beautiful face. It can be done in many ways: exaggeration, hedge words, unusual juxtaposition, etc. I subscribe to Scott Alexander’s view that microhumor is “maybe the number one thing that separates really enjoyable writers from people who are technically proficient but still a chore to read.” but I do find it easier to write it in footnotes, for some reason. Now I realize what the reason is: it’s the freedom. (So don’t skip my footnotes. My best bits of writings are often hidden there!)14This parenthetical sentence used to be a footnote, but then I realized that people who don’t click footnotes are its intended audience, so there.
As an example, consider these footnotes from Shea Serrano’s Conference Room, Five Minutes: Ten Illustrated Essays About The Office:
Now these aren’t that funny in isolation, and I’m not going to copy-past the entire page (sorry), but I really like Footnote #9: “LOL.”
Another writer who does digressions well is Tim Urban from Wait But Why. Tim is a master at this. He has two types of footnotes: gray squares for boring ones, such as citations, and blue circles for interesting stuff that didn’t make it into the body of the essay. This distinction is an excellent way to reinforce the positive signal on the fun footnotes.
Tim also invented a custom sixth level to the digression hierarchy: the blue box. Which can be nested through the use of the bluer box. Here’s a screenshot from his post about AI:
Writers can get even more creative than that. Online, especially, there’s no shortage of devices you can use to structure a piece of writing. Julian Shapiro, for instance, has collapsible sections in his guides, for instance this one on writing first drafts. They’re collapsed by default, thus working similarly to footnotes.
Of course, you can also just add information by providing a link. Or you could embed a YouTube video. At this point, however, we’re leaving the world of pure writing and entering the wider world of multimedia content.
Scott Alexander, in the writing advice essay I quoted above, suggests that it’s good to break the flow of the writing to provide variety. You can do this in many ways — bold, italics, images, links, quotations.15By contrast with parentheses and footnotes, I don’t actually like to read quotations that much, and I will often skim them. I think it’s because unless the author is self-quoting, they tend to be written in a different style from the author’s, and quite often less to my taste. After all, I selected the writer I’m reading, but had no say in selecting the author of the quote. (Yes, I’m aware that I used them several times in this essay. They are useful for a writer. In my defence, Scott Alexander writes better than I do.) Parentheses, footnotes, and Tim Urban’s blue boxes are simply extra tools for this purpose. Extra colors on the palette.
Don’t use them if you don’t like them. Don’t read them if you prefer not to. But remember that they can be, for readers and writers alike, a lot of fun.
Thanks to Rishi, Alicia, Kritika, Kushaan and Tamara for the original idea and comments on the first draft.