Parentheses and Dashes

Although the semicolon remains my favorite punctuation mark, I like a good dash, too. I don't mean a hyphen; I mean the wider em dash. Like the semicolon, this modest character is frequently ignored, and even when it isn't, it's often underused in favor of parentheses. Sometimes it's even confused with the hyphen, so life isn't always easy for the little guy.

Parentheses are too easily used, when in fact they ought to be used sparingly. Too many dashes can get old pretty quick, but a glut of parentheses is worse. The time for parentheses is when there's just no other way to cram the information into your sentence. Parentheses are for strong digressions; they're a last resort. Unlike dashes, you can put whatever you want inside parentheses without worrying too much about destroying the structure of your sentence, although this shouldn't be the primary motive behind their use.

Mike wasn't a professional mechanic -- he didn't even own a wrench -- but the engine ran better than it had in years.

It's extremely common to see the em dash rendered with two hyphens, as in the sentence above. This is a holdover from the days of limited character sets, and not a big deal to most people. It's also common to see a space on either side, again as in the sentence above. But if you really want to do it rightthe way it's done in books and magazines, and other high-octane publishing concernsit's best to use a real dash right off the bat, and get rid of the spaces while you're at it.

Mike wasn't a professional mechaniche didn't even own a wrenchbut the engine ran better than it had in years.

If you can easily assign an em dash to a simple key sequence on your keyboard, fine. If not, there's no real problem with using the two-hyphen substitute. The space-on-either-side issue isn't a big deal, either; in fact, some prefer things this way because it's easier to read, especially with certain fonts and typefaces. Nuff said.

When you use dashes, it's important to keep an eye on what's happening to your sentence structure. As I mentioned, you can't just put whatever you want between the em dashes; you still need a grammatically correct sentence with or without them.

Mike wasn't a professional mechanic, but the engine ran better than it had in years.

As you can see, the sample sentence still works without the words that were between the dashes. And if you look only at the words I just took out, the grammar still holds up, too.

He didn't even own a wrench.

Unlike parentheses, you don't have to use two dashes in a sentence, and in fact you often see just one. The side-material you're inserting could be at the beginning or end of a sentence, and in that case you would only need one dash.

Mike wasn't a professional mechaniche didn't even own a wrench.

That's just for illustration; personally, I would be more likely to use a semicolon in this sentence. Although there may be professional mechanics who don't own wrenches, that fact alone isn't enough to define a professional mechanic. In other words, I think a semicolon would be a softerand more appropriatelogical connection in this case, while a colon would be too extreme.

Since you can pretty much go nuts with stuff you might put inside parentheses, there isn't much to say about them. Probably the best advice I can come up with right now is simply to use them in moderation.

Mike wasn't a professional mechanic (come to think if it, I don’t believe he even owned a wrench) but the engine ran better than it had in years.

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