I just read Chuck Palahniuk's latest novel, Tell-All, and I couldn't get through a sentence without seeing a bold-face name. Other writers love (parenthetical) remarks or even {brace themselves} stranger marks. Some writers and readers like typographic tricks; some hate them. What are the baseline usage standards for such things in published prose?



In Palahniuk's books, the type has been pretty straightforward to date, even if the subject and the narratives have not. Diary, Choke, Snuff, even Pygmy: They all may experiment with the prose (Pygmy's syntax is particularly torqued and warped), but not so much with the bold, the italic, and the ornaments of type.


Not so Tell-All: Every sentence features a bold-face celebrity name, sometimes two or three per sentence, with Lillian Hellman coming in for particular abuse, um, special treatment. Here Chuck is playing with the newspaper gossip column convention of setting celebrity names in bold face to attract readers. It's unusual to see in a novel, and unusual because it is repeated throughout the book until the effect is rather numbing; very intentionally so, I would think.


In most published books for general audiences, edited according to the conventions upheld by the Chicago Manual of Style, bold-face type is reserved for what are known as design elements: subheads, table titles, and the like. It can also be used for emphasis. Italic type is reserved for foreign words; newspaper, magazine, movie, theater, album, book, and television series titles; interior monologues; and words used as words. (An example of a word used as word: "The word italic is a reference to Italian typesetters of the 1500s, who developed it to contrast with Roman type and to evoke handwriting. Roman typefaces were based on the letters the Renaissance typesetters saw carved on the ancient Roman sculpture and ruins studied so enthusiastically by humanist scholars of the Renaissance.)


The fascinating history of letterforms and type aside, all we need to know now is that whether something is set italic or Roman is now a matter of typographic style that reflects categories of information and is based on standards published in the Chicago Manual of Style (books) and AP Stylebook (periodicals).


And to follow up on a post here two weeks ago, What about those ( )s, [ ]s, and { }s?


Parentheses are used to mark, or delimit, material that can easily be removed from a sentence without damaging its meaning. They are stronger than commas and often enclose material such as publication dates, birth and death dates, party affiliations, and the like. They can enclose single words, phrases, full sentences, and whole paragraphs. When they enclose a full sentence, the end punctuation of that sentence is set inside the parens.


Brackets enclose material that is added to a previously published piece of writing. They often add information to material that has been quoted by commentators or editors. And when something nested inside a parenthetical remark needs to be set apart from that material, brackets are used instead of a second set of parentheses. In other words, if you have a sentence with (remark remark) in it and you want to add a remark inside that material, the punctuation runs (remark [remark on remark] remark). 


I used to teach about parentheses and brackets, in considerably more detail, in my grammar courses at the New School. In one of my mini-courses, called Punctuate! I received a question I had never heard before: "Ms. Scordato, what about { } ?" (The student drew them in the air.) First, we took some time exploring exactly what they were called; in the USA, we call them braces. In India and those areas where Indian-flavored English is the norm, I discovered what we call braces are sometimes called flower brackets. And they are also known as curly brackets.


Braces have specialized uses. They are common in computer programming, often seen in music, and appear regularly in mathematics texts.


Confusingly enough for Americans, in Britain and among those who speak and write and publish British-flavored English, ( ) are known as brackets, [ ] are known as square brackets, and { } are known as curly brackets.


I think I will wait for Palahniuk to try his hand at a novel playing with the conventions of parentheses, brackets, and braces. Among authors I read, I can think of only David Foster Wallace and his elaborate footnotes when I think of nested parentheses and brackets.


Do you like italic or bold-face type aesthetically? Can you explain why bold-face was not, in that last sentence, and is italic in this one? Winner gets their name in bold face in next week's column!




Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

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by on ‎07-21-2010 10:52 AM

I don't (normally) use brackets or parens very much.  I like that word, paren!  I've never seen the word parentheses written in this form.  I like how you've explained these [things], although, I've read that the brackets and parentheses can be interchangeable.  The only time I use a brace, is when my wrist starts to hurt, like now.  Actually, sometimes my pants need them, too!  But when writing, I use them singly} in the place of an equal (=), giving an explanation. (Boy, that sentence is a mess!)


Since you typed that whole paragraph in bold-face, you set this word off by not using the bold type.  You set off the word, Italic, by showing the word's meaning, in italic type-face.


On these boards, I use Italics when I'm quoting someone.  Or I'll use it when mentioning the title of an author's book.  I bold words, when I want to make my points VERY clear, and (sometimes) punch it up a notch, in CAPS, and italics!


I don't think I've ever read a novel that was full of bold; the quote marks ("-") were sometimes used (interchangeably with italics) to also quote.


that's it folks...I no nuttin more.  If I've made some typos, it's because of my brace.

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