The standard accounting way is always to show negative numbers in parentheses. Where does this practice come from?

For example, this cash flow statement use parentheses indicate negative values:

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1 Answer 1


I'd love to see if someone can find a convincing origin story for the practice, but I believe it became adopted simply because parenthesis stand out more than a negative sign.

Think of a hand-written ledger or balance sheet, an errant dot of the pen could look like a minus sign, or a narrow column could leave too little space for the minus sign to be noticeable. Parenthesis are deliberate and easy to spot while scanning a sheet, so no idea who was the first to do it, but it was effective and caught on.

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    Not my down-vote, but this Answer might be deserving for providing mere speculation when the Question asked specifically for historical fact. A Stack Exchange is not a casual discussion site or forum. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 0:44
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    @BasilBourque That's fair, my answer was based on research that yielded no better explanation. I'm guessing the downvotes were actually related to answering a question that was deemed off-topic, but who knows. Always like feedback!
    – Hart CO
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 0:54
  • Down-voting an Answer because the Question was deemed off-topic would be quite petty, unless the Question was quite obviously irrelevant/useless (not the case here). Anyways, in my experience you can always expect an occasional nonsensical down-vote. I suspect some are just a “drive-by down-vote” by a cranky person, or perhaps even an accident such as a clumsy-thumb in the iOS Stack Overflow app. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 1:47

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