Dashes vs. Parentheses

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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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