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Parentheses and dashes are two different (but often confused) ways of setting off a chunk of information within a sentence – do you know how to use them correctly?

Parentheses & Dashes

Does your brain ever feel like an unruly filing cabinet or an overstuffed bookshelf, with so much rattling around inside that you can’t keep track of it all?It happens to all of us. But even if the inside of your head seems like that sometimes, your writing shouldn’t; it’s confusing to readers and makes your thoughts hard to understand.In this lesson, you’ll learn how to use parentheses and dashes to organize your thoughts and separate off non-essential parts from essential information so your readers can clearly find the important parts of your sentences.

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Parentheses

Parentheses mark off a part of the sentence that is grammatically non-essential and less important than the rest. In other words, whatever’s inside the parentheses, you could take it out completely and the sentence would still be grammatically complete and make sense. For example, let’s take our poor absent-minded professor, caught on the first day of class:Your grade in this class will be 50% homework divided equally among eight assignments, 20% tests there will be three tests during the semester, and 30% class participation everyone is expected to contribute to discussions.

That is one long and confusing sentence! Let’s see if we can organize it a little bit with parentheses. How about this?Your grade in this class will be 50% homework (divided equally among eight assignments), 20% tests (there will be three tests during the semester), and 30% class participation (everyone is expected to contribute to discussions).You can see that if we just took out the parentheses, we would have a sentence that still made sense: ‘Your grade in this class will be 50% homework, 20% tests, and 30% class participation.’The parentheses around the other parts of the sentence provide some structure by marking out where the non-essential information is, so you don’t get lost in the middle of the sentence. They let you add extra details without making the sentence too complicated.

Dashes 1

You can also do the exact same thing with another punctuation mark: the dash.Dashes are punctuation marks used to set off non-essential information, to loosely connect two thoughts, or to mark a break in the sentence.To start with just the first item on that list, we can use dashes in exactly the same way as parentheses to set off non-essential information from the rest of the sentence.

Let’s take another example:I had to take my cat to the vet she had a very bad fever so I didn’t get around to grading your tests this weekend.This one isn’t quite as bad as the last one, but it could still use a little work. Let’s see how we could clean it up a little with dashes:I had to take my cat to the vet – she had a very bad fever – so I didn’t get around to grading your tests this weekend.Ahhh, that’s better, isn’t it? You can see that the part between the dashes is not essential: you could just say ‘I had to take my cat to the vet, so I didn’t get around to grading your tests this weekend.

‘ But if you want to add a bit extra, about the fever, you can put it in dashes to show that it’s optional information and prevent the reader from getting lost.When you’re working with parentheses and dashes, you can pick either one; just remember that you can’t mix and match. If you’re going to set something off with parentheses, you have to use parentheses on both sides; you can’t use a parenthesis and then a dash.

Dashes 2

Dashes aren’t just used as a kind of alternative to parentheses, though. They can also loosely connect two parts of a sentence. A dash can indicate that the second half of the sentence is an explanation for the first, or it can just show a loose connection.

Used this way, a dash is almost like a more casual version of a semicolon, but a little more energetic. Take a look at how this works:I’m not sure whether I lost my textbook at home or in my office I can’t find it anywhere.This is a run-on sentence. But you can clear everything up just with a dash:I’m not sure whether I lost my textbook at home or in my office – I can’t find it anywhere.

Our former run-on just got organized with a dash to separate one complete thought from the other so that they aren’t quite so jumbled together. Isn’t that better?Dashes can also be used when someone is cut off in the middle of a speech or a thought:Student: Professor, you-Professor: Hold comments, please.This isn’t as common on standardized tests, but it’s good to know if you’re doing creative writing and need to make a character stutter or get interrupted.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you learned how to use parentheses and dashes to organize your thoughts, set off non-essential information, and avoid run-on sentences.Parentheses set off non-essential information in a sentence.

Dashes can act like parentheses, loosely connect two thoughts, or mark a break in a sentence.Using parentheses and dashes properly adds structure to your sentences and helps you avoid the absent-minded professor effect. This makes your writing easier to understand and lets you add details to a sentence without confusing the reader.

Learning Outcome

After finishing this lesson, you should feel ready to explain how to use parentheses and dashes in a sentence.

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