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This is related to an earlier question: "parentheses" vs "parenthesis" but is about etymology of the related (and apparently informal, per wikitionary ) word "paren" and more in line with the rules of being "on topic".

As some answers and comments to the linked question point out, the "official" English words are so similar it is confusing. For one, "parenthesis" can mean a singular "(" or ")" or it could be the contents between "(" and ")". So, its meaning changes depending on context but both meanings are used in very similar contexts and could easily be confused. Additionally, one rarely uses the singular form in the English language. Furthermore, they are so close in spelling and pronunciation that they are easy to confuse visually (without reading slowly) and audibly (without an awkward additional stress on the final syllable). Therefore, these words are problematic in the language.

In the tech industry and similar circles, the need for a singular version is more common as the single characters "(" or ")" may appear on a line in computer code, on a keyboard or keypad, or for use in emojis. I believe (though I do not have a source) that this word is used not just to shorten "parenthesis", but also to eliminate the confusion mentioned in the linked post. When you say "paren" you cannot mispronounce or use it in a way to be confused with the plural "parentheses". Whether that hypothesis is true or not, in my field of work, it works to use it and it is used commonly. In fact, personally I have used "paren" quite often lately and of course I use "parentheses", but I don't believe I've ever used the word "parenthesis" (when I was younger I often used "parentheses" improperly as both singular and plural). As an engineer, I'm probably overexposed to the usage of this word, so I don't really know how common it is or not. It seems I've only been using it myself in the last few years (perhaps it was less common 7 years ago when the linked question was asked).

In addition to defining it as a synonym of "parenthesis", Merriam-Webster does cite a usage of a pluralized form "parens" from 1985 in its definition. However, every time I've noticed, people around me use the long form "parentheses" for the plural, making it an interesting singular/plural pair (paren/parentheses) that I don't believe is similar to any others in the language. This citation does show the word was used at least as far back as 1985 and that its use was technology related, but I haven't found an official first usage anywhere.

So, my questions are:

  1. When did "paren" first start being used as a shortened form of parenthesis?

  2. Can anyone confirm or disprove my hypothesis with one or more sources that "paren" has been adopted by people in the tech industry to minimize the confusion of using "parenthesis"?

  3. How common or uncommon is the usage of "paren" outside of the tech industry?

Side note: I'm born and raised in the United States and I know it's not technically proper grammar here, but I prefer the British standard of punctuation that is not part of a quote to be outside of the quotation marks, so those grammatical "errors" in my discussion above are on purpose. To me, having them inside the quotations marks just does not make sense if they are not part of the quoted word or phrase regardless of what official rules say... but that's another discussion.

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  • I know I adopted it in the tech industry in the 80’s simply because it’s less of a mouthful, not because of any perceived ambiguity. The only ambiguity is in whether it’s an open paren or a close paren. And after a while we often just said “open” or “close” and dropped the “paren” entirely. Also, you mention “officially” several times here. There isn’t any office that English rules come out of.
    – Jim
    May 19, 2021 at 19:05
  • @jim Though I've certainly heard "open" and "close" I also often just hear "left paren" and "right paren" as well.
    – Trashman
    May 19, 2021 at 19:11
  • @jim Yes, you're right - there is no "official" source for the English language. However, there are certain rules we all tend to abide by and would be chastised by our grammar/english/lit/ela (whatever they're calling it these days) teacher for violating. I guess when I use the term, my best reference is the Franklin-Covey Style Guide. I'm sure there are some sort of "grammar police" on this site. I'm also not sure what would be a better, yet concise word or phrase to use in place of "official" would be to convey what I'm trying to say.
    – Trashman
    May 19, 2021 at 19:12
  • Editors have always used it.
    – Lambie
    May 19, 2021 at 20:55
  • To whomever voted my question down, may I ask that you do as the site suggests and add a comment as to what I can do to improve the question?
    – Trashman
    May 23, 2021 at 20:27

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The abbreviation dates back to the early 20th century, when it was used to refer to parenthesis. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary entry and first two examples:

Chiefly Printing.

= parenthesis n. 2a. Usually in plural.

1905 F. H. Collins Author & Printer 282/2 Parenthesis, pl. -es, abbr. parens.;..the upright curves ( ).

1948 Words into Type 282 (note) The terms curves, brackets, and round brackets are never used in printing offices for parentheses. The term there used is parens, separately designated open paren and close paren.

The terminology has stayed current in typography since. If your account of the tech industry is accurate, it sounds like they similarly adopted it when developing typefaces for computers, after which it may have trickled into other kinds of development. For instance, Donald Knuth uses the terms to explain defining parentheses in typeface in the 1986 book Computer Modern Typefaces (p. 66):

The character lists and extensible specifications are defined at the beginning of the program file. Then come the programs for individual characters, most of which use subroutines from cmbase like the left.paren and right.paren macros shown on the next page. [...]

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