Are You Feeling Dash-ing? Using Punctuation for Effect and Influence

The dash--that curious mark of punctuation people use in their email and letters. Not the hyphen (-), but the dash (--). It's made by hitting the hyphen twice. In most cases, when you type the hyphen twice it will turn into one long dash (-). Sometimes you see the dash inserted where a comma would fit; other times you see it where you would put parentheses. How is the dash supposed to be used-and when can you use it to get the effect you want?

Each mark of punctuation has a specific function in writing. Certain conventions are attached to every mark of punctuation, and as long as the conventions are adhered to, most readers will understand what we mean when we write. The problem is that the farther we get from our education, the more difficult it becomes to remember the conventions.

Then, add the informality of email to the mix and all "standard" conventions sprout wings and fly out the window. Or at least that's what happened for a time--until we realized people didn't understand our messages. We're revisiting conventions in punctuation because the whole point to the work we do is to get our messages heard and understood--the way we intended them to be understood.

The dash, the comma, and the parentheses tend to be used interchangeably and can to be pretty confusing when they are. Most writers confuse them because they don't understand the important role each mark plays in conveying meaning to the reader. I'll clear up the specific use for each so you'll better understand when to use the dash to get the results you want.

Separating the Comma from the DashIn my article "Does Punctuation Really Matter in Eamil?" I discussed two of the multiple uses of the comma: to separate items in a series and to set off introductory clauses. Commas can also be used in the middle of a sentence to set apart information that is extra-stuff you don't need but that might be useful. For example,

"We will provide breakfast. We will not, however, provide lunch."

In this example, the "however" between the commas isn't required. You could leave it out and still understand the sentence. Hence, the "however" is calm and calls little or no attention to itself.

Parentheses also indicate that the information within them could be left out because the reader doesn't need that information to understand what's being said:

"The results have been released and are included with this report (see Appendix A)."

In this case, the information in parentheses is extra and not necessary though definitely useful. You may remember from school that when you see information in parentheses you can skip that information and will still be able to understand what's written.

Using the Dash to Make Your Point

Okay, so commas set off unimportant information; parentheses set off unnecessary information. What do dashes do? Dashes add emphasis. This is completely opposite from what commas and parentheses do. Consider their difference this way: parentheses whisper, commas are calm, dashes scream!

When you separate information in your sentence by using a dash or dashes, you are telling your reader "this is the only information that really matters." Because of the impact of dashes and their difference from commas and parentheses, you can see how important it is to use dashes correctly-and only when you want to add emphasis!

Knowing What You're Doing & Why

While some folks have begun to think dashes, commas, and parentheses are interchangeable, you can probably now see why using the correct one in your sentence will make the difference in the message your readers might get.

Be careful to use your marks of punctuation carefully so they help reinforce the message you are trying to get across to your reader. Stick to the conventions of punctuation, and be consistent. This not only improves the readability of your documents; it also increases your credibility.

About the Author:

Dr. Tracy Peterson Turner works with organizations that want to turn their managers into leaders and with leaders who want to get their messages heard. She is an expert in both written and verbal communication and conducts presentations and workshops to help individuals and corporations meet their communication goals.

Visit Tracy on the web at Email her at

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