Parentheses and dashes are useful when you need to insert a brief definition, explanation, list, or afterthought into a sentence. However, they are often overused or misused, breaking the unity and flow of the sentence. This microlab will help you:
- Understand how parentheses and dashes should be used
Review of Parentheses and Dashes
Parentheses look like: ( )
A dash appears as one unbroken line, but can be typed as two hyphens: --
No space is left before or between either hyphen. Two General Rules: Parentheses and dashes are used as separators. They set off certain words, phrases, or clauses from the rest of the sentence:
Correct: After dinner, Theo served baklava (a Turkish desert). Correct: Recent American presidents—Johnson, Carter, and Reagan—have had supportive wives.
Parentheses and dashes are never used to enclose words or phrases that are necessary to make the sentence complete:
Incorrect: Cowboys often—returned—tired and dusty. (The phrase within dashes contains the verb of the sentence). Correct: Cowboys—tired and dusty—returned to the bunkhouse. (This phrase within dashes contains neither subject nor verb and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence: Cowboys returned to the bunkhouse).
To use parentheses and dashes correctly, we need to know what kinds of material can be set off from the rest of the sentence!!
I. Brief definitions and explanations:
Use parentheses to enclose brief definitions and explanations:
Correct: The holograph (the author’s handwritten manuscript) showed many corrections. Correct: Hemingway stood up at his typewriter (he wanted to stay in shape) and often typed late into the night.
II. Period use:
If the entire sentence is surrounded by parentheses, put the period inside the closing parenthesis. If the words/phrases enclosed with parentheses is at the end of a sentence, put the period outside the closing parenthesis:
Correct: She moved from Washington to Dover (the capital of Delaware). Correct: (Don’t turn the page.)
III. When to not use parentheses:
Do NOT use parentheses to set off words and phrases that are connected to other parts of the sentence:
Incorrect: The geometry teacher defined a line as (an infinite series of points). Correct: The geometry teacher defined a line (an infinite series of points).
To check the use of parentheses, try leaving out the words or phrases enclosed by the parentheses when you read the sentence. If the sentence is complete and still makes sense, the parentheses have been used correctly:
Correct: Claude Debussy (the French composer) was born in 1862. Correct: Clause Debussy was born in 1862.
The above sentence communicates the point without the words enclosed in parentheses. Therefore, parentheses are used correctly. As a general guideline for using parentheses correctly, keep these two rules in mind:
- Parentheses are used to add definitions, explanations, or additional information that clarifies the basic sentence.
- Parentheses should not be used to enclose words or phrases needed to make the sentence complete.
A general rule about dashes: When separating a phrase or word in the middle of a sentence, it must be enclosed within two dashes. If the word or phrase is at the end of the sentence, you only need one dash before it.
Use dashes to separate a list or series of items from the rest of the sentence:
Correct: His wide range of interests—student government, sports, and travel—impressed the admissions committee. Correct: The display of jewelry from Native American tribes—Navajo, Apache, Zuni—brought visitors from many states.
Use a dash to signal an afterthought. An afterthought is an additional thought or idea that the writer wants to add to the main idea of the sentence. The dash introduces and gives emphasis to the afterthought:
Correct: Kathy will graduate next semester—even though she doesn’t know what she wants to do. Correct: None of the researchers noticed the green mold—an unusual oversight.
VI. Brief explanations or examples:
Like parentheses, dashes can be used to enclose a brief explanation or example:
Correct: Hard candy—the kind often found in Christmas stockings—can damage children’s teeth.
VII. When to not use dashes:
1. Do NOT use a dash for a list that is needed to make the sentence complete:
Incorrect: Last year—Beacon College, Hartford Academy, and Brighton University—cancelled their football programs. Correct: Last year several colleges—Beacon College, Hartford Academy, and Brighton University—cancelled their football programs.
2. Do NOT use a dash to set off a list that is joined to the rest of the sentence by a preposition (such as “of,” “for,” or “with”):
Incorrect: She laid out an exquisite quilt made of—satin, calico, and white lace. Correct: She laid out an exquisite quilt made of satin, calico, and white lace.
3. Do NOT use dashes to separate verbs from their objects:
Incorrect: Simpson got—the job Murphy wanted. Correct: Simpson got the job—it just happened to be the one Murphy wanted.
4. Do NOT use dashes to separate conjunctions (like “and,” “but,” “or,” etc.) from the words that follow:
Incorrect: While taking a test, he suddenly leaped from his chair and—rushed out the door. Correct: He suddenly leaped from his chair and rushed out the door—even though he was still taking a test.
Key Points to Remember:
- Parentheses and dashes are separators that set off certain words, phrases or clauses from the rest of the sentence.
- Do not use parentheses or dashes to enclose words that are needed to make the sentence complete.
- Use parentheses to enclose brief explanations or definitions.
- Use dashes to separate a series of items from the rest of the sentence, to signal an afterthought, and to enclose a brief explanation or example.