Eliminate Excessive Parentheses in Technical Writing

One of my pet peeves in scientific and technical writing is the use of parentheses. It seems like once a writer gets started they just can’t stop, and soon every sentence has a parenthetical list.

parentheses

Parentheses are distracting. They are a mark of punctuation that the readers’ eyes are drawn towards. So they have the opposite effect to what they intend. They actually draw attention to their presence in their document instead of deflecting attention away from themselves.

For this reason, you want to strictly limit your use of parentheses. In scientific and technical documents, use parentheses for citations or abbreviations, but not for additional information. Decide whether the information is necessary to your document. If it is, incorporate it into the sentence. If it is not, delete it.

If you are wondering how to do that, here is an example that may help. Many thanks to a former student for submitting the original paragraph and giving me permission to use it to help others.

Original Paragraph — Excessive Use of Parentheses

We detected other avian species at two levels: birds during the transect survey and birds anywhere or anytime at the survey location.  Because the first level is a subset of the last, we used the last category of data to summarize incidental birds.  We included one general location we visited, but were unable to survey (Big Creek) for a total of ten locations.  We detected 66 species of birds (including willow ptarmigan) during our field operations (Table 5). Seven species (tundra swan, willow ptarmigan, sandhill crane, black-bellied plover, Pacific golden-plover, greater yellowlegs, Lapland longspur) were found at nine out of ten locations, while one species (common raven) was detected at eight of ten locations, and six species (greater white-fronted goose, northern pintail, Wilson’s snipe, mew gull, American tree sparrow, and fox sparrow) were detected at seven of the ten locations.  These fourteen species are known to be common especially in the dwarf and low shrub dominated communities common to our sampling frame.

Revised Paragraph — Parenthetical Information Referenced in Table

We detected other avian species at two levels: birds during the transect survey and birds anywhere or anytime at the survey location. Because the first level is a subset of the last, we used the last category of data to summarize incidental birds. We included one general location – Big Creek – that we visited but were unable to survey, for a total of ten locations.  We detected 66 species of birds, including willow ptarmigan, during our field operations. For details, please refer to Table 5. Seven species were found at nine out of ten locations, while one species was detected at eight of ten locations, and six species were detected at seven of the ten locations.  These fourteen species are known to be common especially in the dwarf and low shrub dominated communities common to our sampling frame.

Revised Paragraph — Parenthetical Information Incorporated Into Paragraph

Another twelve species were found only on one plot. These included Canada goose, bufflehead, common goldeneye, common merganser, rock ptarmigan, Pacific loon, double-crested cormorant, black turnstone, tree swallow, bank swallow, gray-cheeked thrush, and yellow warbler.  There are several options explaining the presence of less commonly detected species. First, they may prefer habitats present on the Northern Alaska Peninsula but different from those used by the willow ptarmigan. These would include  rock ptarmigan, waterbirds, or waterfowl. Second, they may be on the edge of their range, such as the Hudsonian godwit, found at two locations. Third, they could be using the Refuge for wintering or migration, like the common merganser and the common goldeneye. Finally, they may generally be less common, like the Pacific loon, or they may not have fully arrived from wintering grounds, such as thrushes and warblers.

Either of the revision options is preferable to the paragraph with all of the parentheses. They are both smoother and easier to read without the distraction of that punctuation mark. Remember, parentheses can be legitimately used for citations. But even then, you should consider working the author’s name into the text every now and again to minimize the frequency of the parentheses.

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