Brackets for alternatives

“A five-point scale of (strongly) disagree, neutral, (strongly) agree.” That makes sense in Dutch but not in English, where brackets add detail rather than expressing alternatives and removing them alters the nuance, not the meaning.
To the native speaker, the above has defined three levels: agreeing or disagreeing, with a pretty definite opinion at that, and not caring much – with an implication that a mild opinion should be classed as ‘neutral’.

This is a biggie, one of the top half dozen Dunglish errors. If you eliminate the use of brackets to express alternatives, you’ll improve your English instantly.

  • werknemer mag niet zelf reparaties (laten) uitvoeren => employees may not carry out repairs or have them carried out
  • the (European) market => a good chance that the brackets aren’t needed at all. Which are you saying: on the domestic market and in Europe? Or in the European market and beyond?
  • (deels) => wholly or partly
  • Only this (these) group(s) has (have) access to the site => Aaargh!

It’s not quite the same issue as another popular form of bracket (ab)use in Dunglish, bracketing off parts of a word to create alternatives. That has already been addressed in (Grand)parents and (sub)contractors.

Prevalence: endemic. When you’re not writing in your mother tongue, it’s easy to forget that it’s not only the words that matter.
Frequency: very high. It’s a standard part of Dutch style, so it can appear many times in the same text.
Native: no. With minor exceptions for wordplay and space-saving. Not in natural writing in running text.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

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

One thought on “Brackets for alternatives

  1. A key point about the brackets adding nuances rather than modifying the meaning is that the sentence can still be read out loud: you can’t speak a sentence in a way that implies both alternatives. De factuur is (deels) betaald => If you put “(deels)” in the middle of the sentence, you no longer know how to say “partly” without invalidating the original “wholly” meaning.

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