Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.
Parentheses and dashes can be used for similar purposes, but they're not the same.
- Parentheses are used to mark off non-essential information within a sentence.
- Dashes are used to mark off non-essential information, or to loosely connect two thoughts.
For example, here's a sample sentence:
The teacher took three students (Jeff, Dennis, and Sue) to see the school nurse.
You can see how the parentheses are setting off information that isn't crucial to understanding the sentence. You could take this out, and the sentence would still make sense:
The teacher took three students to see the school nurse.
If parentheses aren't your style, you could set off that non-essential information with dashes:
The teacher took three students - Jeff, Dennis, and Sue - to see the school nurse.
Either way is equally correct, but you can't mix and match. Whatever you use to introduce the non-essential information, you have to use that same mark at the end of the non-essential part.
As well as using a pair of dashes like a pair of parentheses, you can also use a single dash to loosely connect two thoughts:
The teacher took three students (Jeff, Dennis, and Sue) to see the school nurse - she was afraid they might be coming down with the flu.
Got that? Then let's get on our way with some practice problems.
Even if you could swim the Moat of Eternity - and that in itself is a major obstacle, you'd still have to fight through the Dragons of Fire and the Labyrinth of Doom before you could rescue the princess.
(A) (as it is now)
(B) a major obstacle; you'd
(C) a major obstacle - you'd
(D) a major obstacle: you'd
Can you spot the problem here? You can see how there's a piece of extra information in this sentence: if you took out 'and that in itself is a major obstacle,' the sentence would still make sense. That means we're going to set this information off somehow from the rest of the sentence. The dash before 'and' looks very promising, since it's completely legitimate to set off a piece of non-essential information with a pair of dashes but then the second dash never comes! Instead, we're left with nothing but a comma.
This is bad: remember that you can't mix and match your punctuation marks like that. So we'll need to choose the answer that gives us the same punctuation mark on both sides of the parenthetical. In this case, that's (C). Now we have an extra piece of information, set off by dashes exactly as it should be (although unfortunately, it doesn't look like it'll help the poor princess very much).
Ready for another question? How about this one?
Tabitha was always afraid of going to the vet, she had been traumatized by a bad Rabies shot as a kitten, so I gave her a favorite treat to calm her down.
Which of the following would NOT be an acceptable replacement for the underlined portion of the sentence?
(A) the vet - she had been traumatized by a bad Rabies shot as a kitten - so
(B) the vet (she had been traumatized by a bad Rabies shot as a kitten) so
(C) the vet, because she had been traumatized by a bad Rabies shot as a kitten, so
(D) the vet, she had been traumatized by a bad Rabies shot as a kitten; so
Here, we're mixing things up: instead of finding the one that's right, we're looking for the one that's wrong. You can see that in all these answer choices, 'she had been traumatized by a bad Rabies shot as a kitten' is being set off from the rest of the sentence in various ways. This is just fine, since the sentence would still make sense without it. You could just say 'Tabitha was always afraid of going to the vet, so I gave her a favorite treat to calm her down.'
Can you spot the one answer that doesn't set off this non-essential information correctly? The answer's coming up, so pause the video if you need more time to think about it.
In choice (A), it's set off by two dashes - that's fine.
In choice (B), it's set off by a pair of parentheses - that's fine, too.
In choice (C), it's set off by a pair of commas - also fine.
But in choice (D), we've got a comma on one side and a semicolon on the other - that's no good! So (D) is the odd man out. Since we're looking for the answer that doesn't work, (D) is correct.
Ready for one last question?
Jim racked his brains for the answer, he'd learned this theorem before, but he was blanking just when he needed it most.
(A) (as it is now)
(B) racked his brains for the answer; having learned
(C) racked his brains for the answer - he'd learned
(D) racked his brains for the answer (he'd learned
Can you spot the error in the original sentence? There are two complete thoughts here: 'Jim racked his brains for the answer' and 'he'd learned this theorem before,' but they're connected by only a comma. That's not OK; a comma can't connect two complete thoughts. So can you spot the answer choice that makes this one legit?
The answer's coming up, so pause the video if you need more time to think about it.
The correct answer is (C). In choice (B), a semicolon could connect two complete thoughts, but this answer choice also changes the second part to 'having learned,' so it's not a complete thought any longer. In choice (D), you could put a parenthesis there if you also had one at the end of the sentence, but you can't have just one parenthesis hanging out by itself.
Choice (C) is an example of how you can use a dash to loosely connect two complete thoughts, so (C) is correct.
In this lesson, you got some practice with using parentheses and dashes. Both can be used to set off non-essential information within a sentence, and dashes can also work as a lose connection between two complete thoughts.
Remember that when you're setting off information using parentheses or dashes, you can't play mix and match: you've got to pick one and stick to it.
Ready to try your hand at some questions on your own? Test your skills on the quiz questions.
Once you are done with this lesson you should be able to:
- Explain how to use parenthesis and dashes correctly in a sentence
- Identify improper use of parenthesis and dashes in a sentence
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