Dashes, and Commas, and Parenthesis, Oh My!

still image from the original Wizard of Oz, from left, The Tin Man, Dorothy, and Scarecrow

Are you afraid of dashes, commas and parenthesis? Well, you don’t need to be afraid any longer.  I won’t go through all the uses for each symbol, but we will look at using them to set off information within a sentence. Many times they are used in similar ways, but they indicate stronger or weaker emphasis.  There are always rules, and of course times when we break the rules, but here are some very generalized guidelines.

You can think of the dash like the roar of a lion, it shows that something has a high level of contrast and the dash is used to bring attention to the words set apart by the dashes.  It can show a level of surprise or strong emphasis. Such as, “The young boy—with arms as thin as sticks –hoisted the massive weight above his head.” The contrast of the thin arms shows the surprise in being able to lift the heavy weight.

The commas are a little subtler, you can think of them like a tiger weaving through the underbrush of the jungle. They can be very powerful, but they pause and wait, ready to pounce with more information.  Something like, “The young boy, who had been secretly training at the gym for months, hoisted the massive weight above his head.”  Here the information within the commas offers more information about the young boy and why he could lift the weights.

Parenthesis can also be powerful, but they are more like the bear walking peacefully through the forest.  They can pack powerful information, but generally are quieter, while still offering more information. We could say, “The young boy (stronger than he looked) hoisted the massive weight above his head”

A few of the “rule breakers”-

If we are already using parenthesis for references in a sentence and the information you want to set off within a sentence would be normally set off with parenthesis, then you might want to consider using commas or the dash so your reader won’t be confused.

If you are already using a lot of commas in a sentence, you might want to consider using the dash or parenthesis instead of more commas.

Well, I hope this helps give a little insight on when to use the lions, tigers and bears of the punctuation world.  Remember, we would love to help talk about those scary punctuation marks with you at the Writing Center!  Make an appointment today–

If you would like to read more about this topic, check out Grammar Girl’s entry at —Grammar Girl

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