Setting Off Phrases Within a Sentence (Commas, Dashes, Parentheses)

Posted: June 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

There are three ways to set off phrases or any material that interrupts a sentence:

  • Commas. Commas are neutral: We went to Tinker Theater, which is near the river, and saw King Lear.
  • Dashes. The long dash—formally known as the em dash—adds emphasis and isolates material within a sentence: We went to Tinker Theater–one of the most beautiful theaters in the country–and saw King Lear. I love old theaters–especially at night.
  • Parentheses. Parentheses take away emphasis: The stairwell at Tinker Theater was poorly lit. (Photo, Exhibit A.)

Although em dashes are standard modern usage, you don’t want to overdo them. Try not to use more than two sets of em dashes on any page. A third set suggests an unhealthy addiction. Bring the text right up to the dash, without putting a space before and after the dash. (The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage requires a space before and after the dash because the spaces are needed to format its print version in columns. Since lawyers don’t write in columns, we don’t need the spaces.)

(To make an em dash in Outlook Express and many other programs, make two hyphens and the program will automatically convert the hyphens to an em dash.  To make an em dash in Microsoft Word, use the shortcut alt0151 or click Insert/ click symbols on the far right/select more symbols, special characters and em dash. Simplify your life by assigning a shortcut key to the em dash and any other symbols that you use frequently.)

Save parentheses for references to outside material, such as Exhibits, or for very minor points. In our hierarchy of writing—where we lead from the top with our key points—parentheses suggest a lower layer of importance than ordinary text, so they often disrupt the flow of reading within a paragraph. Therefore, don’t use parentheses unless you really mean to downplay the material in the parentheses.

(The Usage and Punctuation Guide in the book explains how to use these marks in more detail and provides examples.)

What do you think?