(Grand)parents and (sub)contractors

Bracketing off part of a word to express alternatives may be very compact on the page, but it’s not acceptable English punctuation.

The basic rule you should stick to when using brackets and hyphens in English is that the sentence should still be pronounceable. The punctuation alters the spoken meaning by affecting the inflection and intonation. So these half-word alternatives just don’t work and you have to write out both options. And be careful whether you’re implying an and or an or! Here are some real examples:

  • (grand)parent => parent or grandparent
  • (sub)contractors => contractors and subcontractors
  • (re)action => action or reaction
  • (inter)national => national and international
  • (sub)programmes => programmes and subprogrammes
  • (trans)shipment => shipment and transhipment
  • (in)appropriate => appropriate or inappropriate
  • (inter)active => active and interactive
  • (trans)national => national or transnational

You can just about get away with it when you’re very short of space and there’s no alternative, for instance in a form or a column heading. Use of a bracketed s to express an optional plural there, for instance, is fairly widespread, e.g. First name(s) or Surgical procedure(s).

Prevalence: high. And it’s jarring because the teeny voice in your head gabbling along as you read the words can’t cope with it.
Frequency: moderate. Legalese documents are fond of it in particular, as a way of simplifying (on the page) what are already complex sentences.
Native: no. It’s a particularly Dutch trick.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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