Punctuation rules, rocks

neglected dashes and parentheses

neglected dashes and parentheses

If this post about punctuation rules puts you in a comma, please accept my apologies (they are valid for the misspelling, too). I must be having a lean period. I don’t like writing about spelling, grammar, punctuation and other issues that are a necessary pain in the colon for authors. I figure that there are enough folks out there writing about stuff like that, folks who are a lot more worthy than me of being put in quote marks.

I have noticed, though, that most of these folks focus on the colon, the semi-colon, the period, the comma and the quote marks. For some reason, most articles on punctuation seem to consider hyphens, dashes and parentheses the poor cousins, the kin they would prefer live on the other side of the road at the other end of town.

I thought I would balance this baseless bias by breaking the mold and writing a post on punctuation rules confined to hyphens, the two dashes and parentheses.

The hyphen

The hyphen is used to connect, to close the gap between compound words that when bridged have a meaning different from the unbridged version. An example is pick-me-up, something that galvanizes your brain and energizes your body, as opposed to pick me up, a request you make when the splurge on pick-me-ups has worn off and you find you are unable to hoist yourself off the floor.

The hyphen also connects prefixes to other words. This particular use of the hyphen is now on the endangered list, and the hyphen is now reluctantly used for this purpose mostly when absolutely unavoidable, such as when a prefix ends and the connected word begins with the same vowel, e.g., pre-eminence. The hyphen is also used when the unhyphenated version of a word differs substantially in meaning from the hyphenated version, e.g., “I will release the apartment when I return from my holiday”, meaning I will let the apartment go (from my possession) when I am back from my holiday, as compared to “I will re-lease the apartment when I return from my holiday”, indicating I will take the apartment on lease once again when I am back from my holiday.

The dashes

While the hyphen, like pretty nearly all punctuation marks, has an almost self-effacing approach to life, the dashes—the em dash and the en dash—are more robust, more in your face. They serve as billboards, while the other punctuation marks are mere placards. Dashes add dash to your communication. Just consider my use of the em dashes in this paragraph. Do you think that clause would have had just as much impact if written with commas, e.g., “…the dashes, the em dash and the en dash, are more robust, more in your face?” We are talking macho and wimp here.

Like all good things, however, the em dash—and the en dash to a lesser degree—are most effective when used sparingly. The same can also be said about parentheses.

The em dash

The em dash is so called because it is supposed to stretch to the width of the alphabet m, while the en dash’s width corresponds to the width of the alphabet n.

The em dash is used to set off appositives, e.g., “Her editor—a perverted purist passionate about perfection—never let her get away with improper use of dashes”. This dash serves to separate two distinct sentences or parenthetical phrases, and to separate an explanatory phrase, e.g., “He swore he would get revenge—even if it took his whole life”.

The em dash is also used in place of a colon to add effect, e.g., “He listed the conditions for calling off the strike—wage increases of not less than 25% for the miners, a five-day week and overtime for more than seven hours a day”. Finally, the em dash sets off a quotation from its attributed source, e.g., “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. — Kurt Vonnegut”.

The en dash

The en dash is used between two entities, e.g., “The New York – London flight was late by an hour”. This dash is also used between ranges, e.g., pages 27 – 41 or the period 1979 – 93.

As you can see, the en dash is the lesser of the poor cousins—it finds less uses.

And before we finish with dashes, some parting tips: don’t use more than one set (pair) of em dashes in a sentence. Every opening em dash at the beginning of an independent phrase or sentence should have a corresponding closing em dash at the end of that phrase or sentence. However, when the parenthetical phrase ends in a period, the closing dash is not required, as can be seen in the preceding paragraph.

You should not use other punctuation marks immediately before or after em and en dashes.


I have mentioned earlier that parentheses need to be used sparingly. Unless used correctly, they can be interpreted by readers in ways the writer never dreamed of.

Parentheses can be intimate and inviting when used informally, or they can be irreverent and irresponsible when used formally. In formal presentations, they are best omitted as far as possible. Often, parentheses can be done away with altogether, or can be replaced by colons, semi-colons or em dashes to achieve greater coherence and impact.

Parentheses can be used to mark out sentences that are subsidiaries of other sentences. Look at these examples:

He decided the ice was thin enough to go skating. (It was a foolish decision).

He decided the ice was thin enough to go skating (foolish decision).

The parentheses in the first sentence can be—and should be— deleted. It will actually improve the sentence structure without making any difference to the intended meaning.  The parentheses in the second sentence are more appropriate, because it is not possible to delete them or replace them with other punctuation marks without changing the word flow, e.g., “He decided the ice was thin enough to go skating: it was a foolish decision”.

Parentheses can be used to set off exclamatory phrases or sentences. Now study this sentence:

After the firemen rescued him from death by hypothermia, he decided not to tell his family (especially his mother) about the incident.

Here, again, the parentheses are appropriate, but could also be replaced equally well with em dashes, or even commas.

Parentheses are also used when words like that is, for example, refer to and see also precede phrases and sentences. Consider this sentence:

Even when his yenta sister, Sarah, got to know of his escapade, he was sure he could keep the rest of family out of it (that is, if he could bribe Sarah to maintain omerta).

Again the parentheses are appropriate, but could be replaced by an em dash between it and that is.

One most appropriate use for parentheses is in numbered running (in-sentence) lists where the numbers are wrapped in parentheses. An example follows.

The day after his negotiations with Sarah, he had to: (a) sell his ice skates, (b) buy roller skates and, (c) buy Sarah the body lotion she had hinted she would love to have.

Another very suitable use for parentheses is when amounts and quantities are given both in figures and in words, e.g., “… a claim for $ 1,500,000 (Dollars One million Five Hundred Thousand)…”

This usage of parentheses is most prevalent in official and officious documents, of the kind generated by legal folks. Legalese is, of course, an exception to what I stated earlier about avoiding parentheses in formal writing. You can’t expect legal folks to follow rules.

eats, shoots, & leaves

Eats, shoots, & leaves

Any other punctuation rules, legal or otherwise, you would like to talk about? I would love to read your comments.

Punctuation rules, rocks

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min