Dashes–Do They Help or Hurt Your Writing?

October 28, 2010

One of the most perplexing punctuation marks for writers seems to be the dash. Because dashes are so powerful, many writers don’t use them at all.

The hierarchy (from least to most powerful) of punctuation is comma, parentheses, colon, dash.

Commas are commonly used and there are numerous reasons to use them (but that’s a different blog post).

Parentheses are stronger than commas when showing a reader something is unnecessary (parenthetical) to the writing, but helpful to create understanding. Commas are used for that purpose as well, but there are many other reasons to use commas.

Colons are used when the writer wants to¬† create anticipation. Example: (note the colon creates anticipation that I’ll give you an example).

Dashes are used to get the reader’s attention. They provide a sharper break in the sentence than commas do, and they offer a more dramatic alert that something’s being inserted in the sentence than parentheses do.

Here’s when dashes help your writing.

  • Use the dash for emphasis. Example: She had to make a decision regarding her career–and she made it this morning.
  • Use the dash to indicate an abrupt change. Example: When they went to the casino, he hated to see her lose–or win–since both kept her gambling.
  • Use the dash to summarize. Example: Every argument has two viewpoints–the other person’s and the correct one.
  • Use a pair of dashes instead of parentheses to enclose parenthetical information. Example: Her thoughts on dieting–if she thought about it at all–were few and far between.

To complicate matters more, there are two kinds of dashes–the em-dash and the en-dash.

The em-dash is so named because it takes up space equal to the letter m. It is the most commonly used dash and the default of most word processing programs.

The en-dash is so named because it takes up space equal to the letter n. It is used between inclusive numbers.

Do dashes help or hurt your writing? When used correctly, they definitely help. When overused, they hurt.

Happy writing!


Comma Sense

October 12, 2010

In the writing classes I teach at the college, I assign a comma exercise. I provide students fifteen sentences and instructions to add commas in the appropriate place, provide the reason for the comma, or mark the sentence with a C if it is correct (no commas needed).

The textbook I use contains a glossary with the most common reasons for commas, and I encourage students to use the appendix.

For most students, this is one of the hardest assignments of the semester. Sentences without punctuation are difficult to read. Knowing where to insert a comma is tough, but knowing why is even more difficult.

Here are some common reasons to use commas.

  • Insert comma between two independent clauses joined with a conjunction. Example: Louise thought John would be late, but John made it on time.
  • Use commas between three or more items in a series. Example: Larry, Moe, and Curly. NOTE: Some writing manuals require the comma before the conjunction in a series (Chicago Manual of Style and APA, for example), while others do not.
  • Use a comma after introductory phrases. Example: When the sun goes down, the night creatures come out.
  • Use a comma to set off contrasting words or phrases. Example: The more you edit, the better your writing.
  • Use commas for sentence interrupters. Example: She is, or thinks she is, a wonderful person.
  • Use commas to set off explanatory equivalents. Example: My mother, Jane, is a huge baseball fan.
  • Use a comma in a direct address. Example: Mary, can you babysit Saturday night?
  • Use commas with direct quotations. Example: Tom said, “I’m trying out for the lead in the class play.”
  • Use commas between modifiers. Example: the thorough, concise, readable manuscript.

Make sure you have a reason for inserting a comma (and the reason is not “That’s where I stop to take a breath.”). Your comma sense will show and you won’t go comma-crazy.

Happy writing!