Punctuation Series: Brackets

Phil Garnham Knowledge share
9 Aug’16

The three most common kinds of brackets are: Parentheses, square brackets and braces. Each have their own uses, depending on content and context, be it in the setting of text, mathematics or code. The below guide is focussed primarily on the setting of English text…

Parentheses (—)

Name Origin:

The word parenthesis originates from the Greek word ‘παρένθεσις’ which is born from words meaning ‘alongside of’ and ‘to place’. 


The traditional typographic parentheses were pure line, a mono linear form much like the dash. But by the mid-1800’s the thick and thin contrasted shape had become the norm. Varying in it’s degree of curvature, the parenthesis offers up the type designer an opportunity to play with tension and define a level of enthusiasm and energy. Oddly this can be quite a thrilling design exercise for such a simply founded structure and the effect it has on any surrounding text can be quite significant, becoming particularly apparent in large body copy setting. When setting the parenthesis in text it is important to ensure that adequate space is on either side of the shape. It is also often recommended to implement the roman or ‘upright’ brackets when using an Italic style yet almost all type foundries do supply the sloped version within their Italic styles. Use what works for you and your project.


Like all bracket forms, parentheses always open ( and ) close. They allow a writer the freedom to provide additional, sometimes slightly deviated but always useful explanatory information. They denote interpolations. The surrounding sentence must be comprehensible without the acknowledgement of any information within the pair. Parenthesis can also occur within parenthesis i.e ( – ( – )) but it recommended to set a styled system whereby the inner-brackets should be set as square-brackets or visa versa. In this case ( [ – ] ) or [ ( – ) ] works well. Considered this as a design decision based on context and content. In either case, it is recommended to insert a hair-space between any two immediately recurring forms i.e )<hairspace>) or ]<hairspace>)


– High quality type design (and typography) is paramount to the project.

– (Copyright Act 1988, 1. 22 (4)) or (Copyright Act 1988, 1. 22 [4])

Square Brackets [—]

Name Origin:

The word bracket is related to the word ‘braguette’ meaning 15th century codpiece. It is true, the term ‘braguette’ evolved to ‘braggets’ and then a chap named Captain John Smith wrote the book “A Sea Man’s Grammar and Dictionary” in 1699 in which he changed ‘bragget’ to ‘bracket’. It stuck and became the architectural term for a bracket that we know today, mainly for holding up shelving. Which just happens to look exactly like our typographic square bracket [ ].


In design terms all bracket shapes within the same typeface are usually the same height, yet careful optical adjustment is required by the type designer. A frequent issue in some fonts is that the square bracket vertical stroke can appear too dark unless the stem weight is optically reduced and balanced with the surrounding text. These brackets should not stand too close to the letter either before or after the bracket. The nature of their shape requires a liberal amount of space either side in order to appear at ease. It’s also important that the horizontal bars should not excessively protrude, avoiding any problematic spacing issues where kerning adjustment would be required.


Square brackets are often used in editorial notes, they can enclose words added by another writer, they guide readers to illustrative references or add further explanation to form clarity from the content. Square brackets can indicate potential omissions if the content is questionable. In theatrical scripts brackets can denote stage directions to an actor, specifically when the directions occur mid-sentence. They can also function well in defining pagination numbers when other numerical elements are used on the same page. A bracketed ellipses is also often used to denote omitted text i.e […]


Editorial Clarity – The year we founded Fontsmith [1997] was a good year indeed.

Omission  – I told you to 'sit the [expletive] down'

Theatrical Script – We shall rest [puts arm around him]. We shall rest! [The watchman taps.]

Pagination (Page Number 164) – [ 164 ]

Braces {–}

Name Origin: 

The word brace means to 'clasp, fasten tightly' and comes from the French word 'bracier' meaning 'embrace'.

Shape Origin:

The curvaceous bracket forms are known as the ‘braces’ and but many people refer to them as the ‘curly brackets’ or even 'squiggly brackets'. Type designers like drawing braces, arguably more so than any other bracket, they have the ability to offer up a window to build differentiation, creativity and uniqueness in the types design. Unfortunately, they are also the least used bracket for text type setting. 


Braces are primarily used in scientific, mathematic or technical writing. As designers we are probably more familiar with their hugging role in just about every coding language, probably the most common function being the grouping of CSS style rules. Braces do however offer something to normal text in those times when you really do need an extra pair of parenthesis. They can be used when all other brackets have been assigned a specific purpose or they can be used to group multiple lines of text.


CSS — h1 { font-family: 'FSUntitledWeb-Regular400' }

A case for a three tiered bracket system of  ( [ {   } ] ) — There were 300 (of the big [red {but not spotted}]) trees.

Angled Brackets

A common yet rarely available bracket is known as the ‘angled bracket’. These brackets consist of two straight lines that point to a mid-line apex or extreme point. They are used mainly in mathematical and scientific writings and are very rarely included in a standard font character set.

Case-Sensitive Brackets

The standard brackets in most fonts are designed to function best in a lowercase typesetting context but it is now common for newer type designs to also include case-sensitive uppercase brackets. These case-brackets are often designed to fit centrally around the uppercase letters, ensuring a far cleaner and harmonious word setting. If you have them in any of the typefaces you are using, you really should use them for setting in all caps. These can usually be accessed by simply selecting ‘All Caps’ in an application’s OpenType panel.

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