When to Dash: The Difference Between Commas, Parentheses, and Dashes in Punctuating Parenthetical—i.e., Extra—Information
- On October 30, 2018
I’ve written many bulletins about dashes—America’s favorite punctuation mark—but today’s edition focuses on the overlap between a pair of dashes (like the ones I just used), commas, and parentheses. All three punctuation marks can be used to give readers extra information.
Let’s take that opening sentence. I could replace the dashes with a pair of commas or a set of parentheses and still be grammatically correct. What then is the difference and when should you choose one over the other?
Here are some guidelines:
- Use commas when you’re telling the reader the additional information carries the same weight as the rest of the sentence and doesn’t call for special attention.
- Use dashes when you want the extra information to stand out. In my first sentence, I’m intentionally drawing attention to the dash’s popularity. Now consider this one: Chef April Bloomfield—of the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, and other celebrated eateries—has finally spoken out about the horrific sexual harassment accusations against her former business partner. Most readers wouldn’t know Chef Bloomfield by name, so that extra information is important. Even if you don’t consider it of greater consequence, dashes are called for because the list already includes two commas. Adding more could compromise clarity.
- Use parentheses when you could remove the information without changing the sentence’s gist. I could drop (like the ones I just used) from my first sentence and you would still know what I’m talking about. Typically, the information you put in parentheses takes the reader on a detour. This is what happened when I read the following line about a woman who designed navy ships: Her boss (who didn’t like her, she said) gave her six months to complete the project, not telling her that his department had been trying to do it for years without success. Indeed, my mind wandered to what a jerk that boss must have been. The tidbit is juicy, but it’s not essential.
In business writing, we tend to overuse these marks, saddling our sentences with too many thoughts. When we do this, we tax our readers and decrease the likelihood they’ll absorb everything we’re saying.
My advice? Have some empathy and choose your parentheticals wisely.