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I've been thinking about the following pattern for some time:

Linseed oil... soaks into the (visible and microscopic) pores

When I was a kid, this wasn't the way I was taught to use parentheses: they go after an idea, and explain it further. Yet it makes perfect sense--"visible and microscopic" is an aside, explaining details.

Is this the right punctuation? Is it informal, or only acceptable in technical writing? My gut says brackets might be more correct, but I can't justify it:

Linseed oil... soaks into the [visible and microscopic] pores
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    No; in running text, the use of square brackets is normally reserved for making additions to quotations, or for when (ordinary) brackets are already being used. Your first variant is quite acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 27 '16 at 21:43
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Punctuation is a matter of style, and as such, the distribution of punctuation marks isn't so much a matter of right and wrong as conformance to a particular style guide. I use The Chicago Manual of Style, and they advise that

Parentheses ... may be used to set of amplifying, explanatory, or digressive elements

Under the guides for combining dashes and parentheses, CMOS gives the following example:

I take this to be the (somewhat obscure) sense of his speech

which seems to fit the example in your query. Brackets have other uses, including editorial inclusions, which might be distracting were they to replace your parentheses.

If you're writing for someone else (editors, professors, etc.), questions of informality and suitability will likely be answered by the manual of style imposed upon you as a contributor.

  • Thanks. I still find it bizarre that I never absorbed this rule as a kid, given how much I used to read. Is what you said about imposing a manual of style a simplification? I've edited informally, and some subtle criticisms/suggestions would have been pretty hard to justify with a rule-based system. – piojo Mar 28 '16 at 4:34
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    @piojo Yes, it's a simplification. It's generally true that if you write under supervision, your monitors will demand that you follow a manual of style. But the good manuals will note that rules have exceptions and that the author's judgment is critical. All manuals will agree on certain things -- for example, starting sentences with a capital letter; ending them with a period -- but they will disagree about other things, e.g, whether commas and periods always go inside quotation marks or whether they follow the sense. On these issues, you will be bound. On others, there will be leeway. – deadrat Mar 28 '16 at 5:16

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