Dashes vs. Parentheses

Q: My friend’s professor says that using dashes to set off something to be emphasized is no longer appropriate. Instead, you should use parentheses to set off words. Is this true?
—Mike D.

A: Dashes and parentheses play similar roles in sentences, but it’s actually the latter that’s unfashionable—dashes are all the rage.

Parentheses can set off a theme that disrupts the discourse of the sentence, but reference tools like The Associated Press Stylebook suggest minimal use. They appear jarring, and many news sources don’t use them, so material between the curves may be misinterpreted by the reader. While dashes can usually serve as an excellent substitute, in some instances, parentheses are the only effective means: Our battle with management made the front page of The Parhump Valley (Nev.) Times.

Dashes are used to denote an abrupt change in thought or an emphatic pause in a sentence. It’s a great style technique. Scooter bought a bicycle—a green 10-speed—to ride to and from work every morning.

They can also be used to dis-play a list typically set off by commas. We filled our bag with the dentist’s tools—drill, hand-held mirror, something resembling a tiny pickaxe, a few free toothbrushes—and scrambled back out, falling to the ground below.

Don’t hesitate to use a great punctuation device like the dash—it can add style and depth to your writing.

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13 thoughts on “Dashes vs. Parentheses

  1. Karin Velez

    Thank you, Brian, for this informative article. I often use the em dash and semi-colons and try to stay away from parenthesis. I sometimes wonder whether I’m using them inappropriately or too frequently. I think you, along with the comments from others, have helped clear that up for me a little bit. And, being a semi-colon lover, I enjoyed the slate.com link. Thanks!

  2. Julie Linkins

    I concur with Collen. While em dashes and parentheses often go in the same places in a sentence, I was taught (and teach my students) that they convey different messages about the relative emphasis of the text they surround. Em dashes add emphasis, drawing attention to the text, and parentheses de-emphasize the text they surround, almost like a whisper or an aside. Commas in the same locations maintain an equal emphasis on the text they surround.

    Punctuation marks are not really matters of fashion, but of function. Properly used, they enhance our messages and enliven the text. Used for decoration or just to be "in style," they distract and confuse readers.

  3. Karla

    The M-dash was the first thing that caught my attention when I opened my e-mail, and I was about to ask you back if that was the trend now, because I remember from managing a group of book editors many years ago, we called it "em dash" (thanks, CMS XV). I’m glad Cookie pointed it out. Thanks for setting it right. I was afraid so much had changed since the last time I edited a manuscript!

    I do love reading your blog and always watch out for your posts. Keep it up!

  4. Collen McGee

    I agree that the em dash can be a great tool. I caution against over using it. I see it way too often lately, mostly from new writers, when a comma would have been better, and more correct. If you can effectively punctuate with other marks, do so. Save the em for emphasis. Using it too much will take the dash out of your em dash. Use it as if it were curtain number three and the words following it need a dramatic pause before they are revealed.

    If writing for a new publication, check their past content. If you don’t see an em dash anywhere, ever, use that as a gauge. As for parenthesis, use them only inside a direct quote when adding a word for clarity. Use brackets when changing a word and an ellipsis when leaving something out, or it was unintelligible.

    All of this is an example of the style for places I write for. Where you work may be different. If you get an assignment with a new publication, ask if they have a local style guide. If so, get a copy. The more work you save your editor, the more work the editor will give you.

  5. Les Edgerton

    Hey Brian,
    There are always folks like me ready to pounce on things, aren’t there! Good subject. I find myself fighting with students all the time at first over how to properly use em dashes, so it was timely.

    A subject I wish you’d address is a formal third person vs a close third person. Many times, beginning writers feel third person isn’t as intimate as first and eschew it for that reason. Why I think they think that is that they’re thinking of a formal third, and in that case, they’d probably be correct. However, a close third has all the benefits of first and third and none of the negatives, and really is the king of povs for a lot of novels. And, it’s such an easy "fix," to transform a formal third to a close third–just change the protagonist’s name to personal pronouns in much of the narrative. When I have students change a formal third to a close third (there are other names for this) they "see" instantly how it transforms it into a very intimate pov. I think it would benefit a lot of writers to see this subject addressed.

    I really enjoy your column.

    Blue skies,

  6. Brian A. Klems

    Thanks for the notes all. You’re definitely correct, it’s "Em-dash" and I know that–careless misstep on my part. Anyway, I’ll be fixing it first thing tomorrow morning but can’t until them (because of URL repercussions in the newsletter).

    Sorry about that. Trying to do too much at once, sometimes you get burned for it.

    Thanks for reading,

  7. Les Edgerton

    As Cookie Biggs pointed out, it’s properly termed an "Em dash" and it becomes one when Word transforms the two dashes separating the two words (no spaces) the following word is followed by a space. I pointed out in my 2004 book (from WD) "Finding Your Voice" that parentheticals were considered archaic in fiction and had been for some time before then, for several reasons. One, they interrupt the fictive dream by making the reader aware someone is writing the story as it’s a form of a direct address to the reader (ala, the Victorian style of "Dear Reader" asides), and they contributed to a formal feel for the read as well. Also discussed in that book how colons are considered archaic punctuations (in fiction–they’re still employed in nonfiction but declining there as well) and that semicolons are also fast fading from the landscape. Considered "musty" punctuations for today’s fiction, which strives for a more informal, personal look. Em dashes have taken the place of parentheticals and colons and semicolons. It was old news in 2004 and it’s ancient news today…

  8. Cookie Biggs

    Em (not "M") and en dashes can be longer (em) or shorter (en) and are measured in picas or points, I forget which. They are not hyphens (the really short one), but MS Word will auto-correct to make an em from two hyphens and an en from a single or pair of hyphens with spaces around it. If you look for these fellows in style manuals, you’ll find that sources differ on when each is used and whether to surround them with spaces.

    I have been called Queen of the Em Dash because I use it so often (which I will NOT do here, even though I really, really want to).


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