Dashes, Parentheses, Commas (Which Goes Where – and When?)
by Trista Cornelius
What’s the difference between using commas, parentheses, or dashes to set apart material in a sentence? Aren’t there instances when you don’t need the commas?
For example, do you write:
Octavia’s business partner, Joan, never makes it to the office before noon.
Octavia’s business partner Joan never makes it to the office before noon.
Similar to my two-part column about the apostrophe, the answer to this question is complex and contradictory, so this topic will also require two parts. I’ll start with what I consider the fun information because it gives you choices as a creative writer. Then I’ll address the complications, including the answer to the above examples, next month.
First, let me explain what some grammar books call “interrupting material.” Sentences often include a descriptive phrase. These words interrupt the flow of thought (often separating the subject from the verb) and can be called interrupters. In the previous sentence, for example, the phrase in parentheses could be considered an interrupter.
In the next sentence, the interrupting material is the description of Octavia:
Octavia, the wealthy countess, arrived at her shuttered mansion shortly after five o’clock.
This descriptive material (the interrupter) usually needs commas to frame it, but parentheses and dashes can also be used
Setting apart interrupting material with commas
The commas show the reader that what is between them is descriptive, but not vital, material. For example:
>Octavia drove her car, an old Honda Accord, to the farmers market.
Here, it’s implied that the type of car Octavia drove adds detail, but the fact that the car is a Honda is not important to the story.
Interrupting material like “old Honda Accord” is also called an “appositive” because it contains a noun that means the same thing as the noun before it. Honda means the same thing as car. In the earlier example, “wealthy countess” means the same thing as Octavia.
Setting apart interrupting material with dashes
Dashes draw the reader’s attention to the material between them, like flashing neon arrows pointing inward at the descriptive material. For example:
Octavia drove her car – three blocks – to the farmers market.
Here, the dashes are acknowledging the reader’s incredulity that Octavia would drive a mere three blocks. The interrupting material is important and tells us something about Octavia’s personality or her physical limitations.
Unlike the parentheses or commas around interrupting material, you might occasionally see only one part of the dash-set used. For example:>
It took forever for Octavia to drive to the farmers market – fifteen minutes!
Setting apart interrupting material with parentheses
If dashes are like a shout and commas like a conversation, parentheses are like a whisper. Parentheses frame material that is not as important as the rest of the sentence. For example:
Octavia drove her car (the navy blue Porsche, not the pearl one) to the farmers market.
Here, the parentheses demotes the descriptive material making it an aside, nothing vital to the story. It’s an unobtrusive reminder that the pearl car stayed in the garage.
So you now know how to distinguish the different meanings of material set apart with parentheses (a whisper); commas, a conversation; and dashes – a shout.
Play with this paragraph
Octavia bent the spoon – with the tips of her freshly manicured fingers – and set it in the empty bowl. She would not allow anyone to tell her what to do (especially after this morning). It had taken her a long time, fifteen minutes, to drive three blocks to the farmers market. Her friend Georgina left in a hurry after witnessing the bent spoon.
Use the above passage to experiment and replace commas with dashes and vice versa and see what happens. What’s the difference in meaning, tone and pacing when you do? For example:
It had taken her a long time – fifteen minutes – to drive the three blocks to the farmers market. Her friend (Georgina) left in a hurry … .
See you next month for part two – and complications!
This is the tenth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!