Are they actually used in normal text? I mean something like a 'normal' book (not a manual, or a technical document). I don't think I've ever seen them yet they clearly predate programming which is the context in which I tend to use them.

Wikipedia only mentions technical uses (such as music and mathematics) or

In mathematics they delimit sets, and in writing, they may be used similarly, "Select your animal {goat, sheep, cow, horse} and follow me".

However, that example is not something I would expect to find in a novel for instance.

So, are curly braces {} ever used in normal text and, if so, when and how? If not, why are they standard? Did they become so only with the advent of computers and programming? A brief history would also be appreciated (when were they introduced to the language for instance).

up vote 11 down vote accepted

They're occasionally used in 'normal' writing when other brackets and braces have already been used for another purpose; and to unite two or more things together.

For example, this 2011 edition of The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday has in a "Note on the Published Text":

Crookes, as editor, inculated into the text of Faraday's words short descriptions of the lecture demonstrations and placed these in square brackets. ... Because Crookes's use of square brackets, minor typographical errors are here indicated in curly brackets {}.

The curly bracket is also called a brace. Here's the OED entry, which also has some illuminating quotations:

14. A sign } used in writing or printing, chiefly for the purpose of uniting together two or more lines, words, staves of music, etc. Sometimes, but less correctly, used in plural to denote square brackets [ ].

1656 T. Blount Glossographia (at cited word), With Printers a Brace is that which couples two or more words together.
1795 L. Murray Eng. Gram. 173 A Brace } is used in poetry, at the end of a triplet.
1806 J. W. Callcott Musical Gram. i. 3 When a Staff is wanted for each hand they are joined together by a Brace.
1841 J. R. Young Math Diss. iii. 129 The first term within the braces.
1880 J. Muirhead Inst. of Gaius & Rules of Ulpian Introd. p. xii, I have had recourse to..braces [ ] and marks of parenthesis.

This shows the connection between a brace and a pair; however, a single, often large, brace is also used to unite several things. Here's an example from TeX.SE:

big brace

Here's a 19th century example from The London encyclopaedia (1839):

BRACKET Ital bracietlo See brace a cramp or stay a piece of wood fixed for the support of something Let jour shelves be laid upon brackets being about two feet wide and edged with a small lath Mortimer In printing a bracket or brace is a certain mark bracing or confining words or lines together as in a triplet thus Charge Venus to command her son Wherever else she lets him rove To shnn my house and field and grove Peace cannot dwell with hate or love J Prior Or thus At the head of each article I have referred by piret included in brackets to the page of Dr Lard ner t volume where the section from which the ihhdgement is made begins Paley's Evidences

Here's a 17th century definition in An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1675). Note they include an example in the definition, I've taken a larger screenshot to show how it in real use in the left column (and common throughout the book), to join two words to a single definition:

ser M the Wind B3 OEs Court of Bouge F from Barrai L a Portmanteau an Allowance of Dicr from the King or strperior Lord to their Knights Elquires ire who attend them in u Expedition BOWKE S iuck Teut a Body the Belly or Stomach 0 Also Bulk Chauc A BOWL Boule F a round Ball of Wood for j Bowling green &c To BOWL to play at Bowls A BOWL of Bolla Sax a Vessel or Cup to drink out of A BOWL in a Sh p a round Space it the Bead of the Mall for Men to land in BOWL ING in a Ship a Rope made BOW Umí j fill to the middle Part of tìie Outside of a Sail which is called the Bow bridic the Use of which is to make the Sails stand Ibarp close or by the Wind Sharp the main BO WLlNG Sea Term Ha e up the BOWLING j made use of then the Bowling is to be pulled up harder Dog Oh À BR A CE of emh rajser F a duple or P ij as a Brace of Ducks Bucks Hares Foies r r BRA CE in JrchitcBure is a Piece of Timber fram d in with Bcvil Joints to keep the Buildings from swerving either way BRA CE Bracch o It an Italian Measure which at Leghorn equal to two i EllSi BRA CE in Printing is a partic ilar Mark to join several Words or Semen ces thus 1 To BRA CE the Yard Sea Term tobring the Yard to either Side BRA CED joined or fallen d together with Brace BRA CED in Heraldry is when three Chevrons are intermingled BRACES of a Ship are Ropes belonging to all the Yards of a Ship except the Miz cn two to each Yard the Use of which is to set the Yard square or eVcn across the Ship BRA CES of a Coach are thick Leather )

Finally, here's the OED's first quotation for brace, Thomas Blount's entry for brace in Glossographia (1656) (you can see on other pages Blount uses the brace to combine two words in a single entry):

brace

  • Personally, I still use braces very frequently in the way shown in the screenshots above, though obviously mostly in handwriting where it's easier. If I have something that needs to apply to several items, they get braced together. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 20 '13 at 22:20
  • @terdon "Ah" is right. It seems as though braces weren't/aren't used in normal writing as normal punctuation, like the parens and brackets are. I suppose they could be used for third-nested parenthetical remarks; see nxx's answer. – chharvey Mar 2 '15 at 8:02

Braces, or curly brackets, are in a list of miscellaneous symbols that R L Trask includes in his ‘Guide to Punctuation’. He writes that they

. . . have various particular uses in specialist disciplines, and sometimes in dictionaries, but they have no function in ordinary writing.

I have nothing on the history, I'm afraid. You might find something in the book reviewed here.

They could be used where parentheses and brackets have already been used, eg,

There were 300 (of the big [red {but not spotted}]) trees,

which is the reverse of their use in chemistry:

4,4'-{1-[({5-[(4'-cyanobiphenyl-4-yl)oxy]pentyl}oxy)carbonyl]ethylene}dibenzoic acid

I'm not sure you'd get away with using them like this in formal writing (outside of chemistry), but that's more because it's a stupid way of presenting information that would be better rephrased. If an urgent and unavoidable need arose, however, I'm sure you could argue a case for their use in this way.

  • Actually, it is specifically formal writing that believes in switching bracket types on nesting. Most people just use parens all the way down. – tchrist Sep 20 '13 at 15:40
  • I think that in formal writing, authors would find a way to rephrase it without using any nested delimiters. "There were 300 (of the big, red, but not spotted) trees," – chharvey Mar 2 '15 at 7:57

I sometimes use square brackets to set a pair of brackets appart from another pair of brackets:

(brackets withing brackets [like so])

I imagine that curly braces could be used this way as well? Otherwise I agree with the above.

  • That's kind of idiosyncratic, but I like your inventiveness. – Cyberherbalist Sep 19 '13 at 23:38

When I edit a web page on Wikipedia, in the Edit summary (Briefly describe the changes you have made) I include all of the edited text (if it is short) or part of it (if it is long), plus a brief explanation, where needed, which I attach at the end enclosed in curly brackets to make clear that my explanation does not constitute part of the edited text.

I used to use parentheses for this - before I edited text that included parentheses. Then I switched to square brackets, before - yes, you've guessed it - I edited text that included both parentheses and square brackets. So now I use curly brackets, which I think work well in that context.

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