Learn English – sylleptic parentheses

parenthesessyllepsissyntactic-analysis

Here's a quote from Wikipedia:

the triple point of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW, 273.16 K and 0.01 °C)

Now, "VSMOW" refers to "Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water", while "273.16 K and 0.01 °C" refers to "the triple point of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water". To me, the writing here seems to be in error: one shouldn't combine parentheses like that if they refer to two different things. Either use

the triple point of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW) (273.16 K and 0.01 °C)

or (preferably) recast the sentence. But maybe I'm wrong: maybe standard practice is, or usage guides suggest, that such 'sylleptic' (if you will) parenthetical explanations are fine to use. Does anyone know?

Best Answer

The Chicago Manual of Style is mute on the subject of consecutive parentheses, but, I note, doesn't use them in any of its examples. (EDIT: I found their reference regarding back to back parentheses, and expanded my answer.)

To apply their guidelines to your sentence, I would use the parentheses for the gloss of VSMOW, and use em dashes to set off the triple point values:

the triple point of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW) — 273.16 K and 0.01 °C — ...

The Chicago Manual also notes:

Parentheses may appear back to back (with a space in between) if they enclose entirely unrelated material; sometimes, however, such material can be enclosed in a single set of parentheses, usually separated by a semicolon.

By this dictum, the phrase becomes:

the triple point of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW; 273.16 K and 0.01 °C)

If VSMOW and the temperatures were entirely unrelated material, the Chicago Manual would give your sylleptic parentheses their blessing; by my reading, however, they are not.

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