Names for brackets (was: Extension of Tourette's)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Apr 7 14:00:07 UTC 2008

At 8:44 AM -0500 4/7/08, Scot LaFaive wrote:
>I concur with Dennis. (Perhaps because we are both in the Midwest? Perhaps.)

I'm not sure the variation is entirely regional.  I call them curly
brackets because back in the late 60s and early 70s, when they were
the topic of lively theoretical disputes over whether their use (as a
way to collapse inputs to phonological and syntactic rules) should be
banned because (in J. D. McCawley's view) the disjunction represented
an acknowledgment that a significant generalization was being missed,
everyone called them curly brackets.  There were also angled brackets
on the palette back then, for coordinated elements in a rule.  Now
that fewer rules are being written, and the theoretical import of
notational conventions has faded away, the younger generations can
decide what to call {}s on their own...


>On Mon, Apr 7, 2008 at 8:24 AM, Dennis Preston <preston at> wrote:
>>  ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>  Poster:       Dennis Preston <preston at MSU.EDU>
>>  Subject:      Re: Names for brackets (was: Extension of Tourette's)
>>  Wilson,
>>  Except for the Hungarian part, I am an old American feller, and I
>>  will have to say that my system is not like Damien's but not like
>>  yours either:
>>  () parentheses
>>  [] brackets (but "square brackets" in phonology)
>>  {} curly brackets (never braces)
>>  "Braces" are for trousers, teeth, walls, etc...
>>  dInIs
>>  >---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>  >-----------------------
>>  >Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>  >Poster:       Damien Hall <halldj at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
>>  >Subject:      Names for brackets (was: Extension of Tourette's)
>>  >-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>>  >
>>  >Wilson said:
>>  >
>>  >>  As far back as the early 'Seventies, I heard (post)graduate students
>>  >>  refer to braces as "curly brackets." At that time, I feared for the
>>  >>  future of the English language. A great weight has been lifted from my
>>  >>  shoulders.
>>  >
>>  >Sorry, Wilson, if it causes you to start losing sleep again after
>>a mere night
>>  >of respite, but your e-mail was the first indication to me that
>>this wasn't a
>>  >straightforward across-the-pond lexical difference!  Of course, I
>>should know
>>  >by now that things are never as straightforward as they seem in language.
>>  >Anyway, as I say, up to now I'd thought that the fact that I
>>referred to all
>>  >kinds of brackets differently to all Americans whom I'd heard
>>  >referring to them
>>  >meant that it was just a thing between the US and the UK.  My
>>system, which I
>>  >maintain stoutly, is:
>>  >
>>  >()   me / UK: 'brackets';         US: 'parentheses'
>>  >[]   me / UK: 'square brackets';  US: 'brackets'
>>  >{}   me / UK: 'curly brackets';   US: 'braces'
>>  >
>>  >To unify the set, I also most often call <> 'angle brackets', and
>>I have even
>>  >been known to call // 'slash brackets' (when these two last
>>enclose stretches
>>  >of characters, of course).  But, to be fair, I don't know whether these
>>  >represent general UK usage, simply me, or US and UK usage.
>>  >
>>  >Damien Hall
>>  >University of Pennsylvania
>>  >
>>  >------------------------------------------------------------
>>  >The American Dialect Society -
>>  --
>>  Dennis R. Preston
>>  University Distinguished Professor
>>  Department of English
>>  Morrill Hall 15-C
>>  Michigan State University
>>  East Lansing, MI 48864 USA
>>  ------------------------------------------------------------
>>  The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

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