Duking it Out: Parentheses vs. Dash

by • July 28, 2014

Writing that engages — that grabs — and writing that is dramatic depends heavily on both the parentheses and the dash (or it should). These two types of punctuation have been duking it out for many years. Proponents of each argue back and forth about which is the most understandable in modern writing.

Can the parentheses and the dash be used interchangeably? Should writers prefer one to the other? Is the dash suave and the parenthetical clunky?

It is a tough call, so let’s dive in.

The Parentheses

Parentheses are used to separate explanatory or qualifying remarks in a sentence. However, content within parentheses is typically not necessary to fully understanding the sentence. For example, “The summer solstice (between June 20 and June 22) is the longest day of the year.” Using parentheses to interject the possible dates of the solstice, as they vary from year to year, adds to the complete understanding of this sentence. But those dates are not strictly necessary; the sentence was fine without them.

Do parentheses, then, make sentences unnecessarily wordy? In looking at the AP style guide, we find that the parenthetical is in a fight for its life. As a matter of fact, AP would prefer that you stop using parentheses entirely. After all: Why include an aside in your writing (jarring to the reader) when you can just compose two sentences? Let the parentheses die a quiet death, alone and unused. This is the main argument used to shelve the parentheses, at least.

The Dash

dash, parenthesis, em-dash, en-dash, debate, grammarly, comma, writingOh, the dash. Contrary to parentheses, the dash is AP’s favorite type of punctuation – and the style guide lauds it endlessly. The dash has become so popular in news writing that it springs up everywhere. The dash is formed by two strokes of the hyphen on your keyboard, and comes in two distinct varieties: the “em dash” and the “en dash.” The em dash is a longer mark than the en dash, about the width of the letter “m.”

The en dash is often reserved as a replacement for the word “to.” A good example of the en dash is the expression of a span of years, like “the years 1950-1970.”

The em dash, on the other hand, marks an abrupt change of thought in a sentence. It has rapidly become the Swiss army knife of punctuation. It can mark pauses for dramatic effect, express contrary emotions, connect dates, denote a quote’s author, replace a colon or semicolon, and even wrap up a series of phrases that need a conclusion. The em dash is turning into a one-stop-shop — literally the Walmart of punctuation.

The dash is used in variety of ways and, in theory, its inclusion in a sentence does not interrupt reading flow. That’s the main argument often used to trumpet-call its ascension.

Which type of punctuation do you prefer in your writing? Should we jump on the AP’s bandwagon and get dash-crazy? Or, do parentheses still have a place?

We invite your comments in this debate.

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