Parentheses and Dashes: Correct Usage

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  • 0:01 Parentheses & Dashes
  • 0:36 Parentheses
  • 1:52 Dashes 1
  • 3:14 Dashes 2
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Parentheses and dashes are two different (but often confused) ways of setting off a chunk of information within a sentence - do you know how to use them correctly?

Parentheses & Dashes

Does your brain ever feel like an unruly filing cabinet or an overstuffed bookshelf, with so much rattling around inside that you can't keep track of it all?

It happens to all of us. But even if the inside of your head seems like that sometimes, your writing shouldn't; it's confusing to readers and makes your thoughts hard to understand.

In this lesson, you'll learn how to use parentheses and dashes to organize your thoughts and separate off non-essential parts from essential information so your readers can clearly find the important parts of your sentences.


Parentheses mark off a part of the sentence that is grammatically non-essential and less important than the rest. In other words, whatever's inside the parentheses, you could take it out completely and the sentence would still be grammatically complete and make sense. For example, let's take our poor absent-minded professor, caught on the first day of class:

Your grade in this class will be 50% homework divided equally among eight assignments, 20% tests there will be three tests during the semester, and 30% class participation everyone is expected to contribute to discussions.

That is one long and confusing sentence! Let's see if we can organize it a little bit with parentheses. How about this?

Your grade in this class will be 50% homework (divided equally among eight assignments), 20% tests (there will be three tests during the semester), and 30% class participation (everyone is expected to contribute to discussions).

You can see that if we just took out the parentheses, we would have a sentence that still made sense: 'Your grade in this class will be 50% homework, 20% tests, and 30% class participation.'

The parentheses around the other parts of the sentence provide some structure by marking out where the non-essential information is, so you don't get lost in the middle of the sentence. They let you add extra details without making the sentence too complicated.

Dashes 1

You can also do the exact same thing with another punctuation mark: the dash.

Dashes are punctuation marks used to set off non-essential information, to loosely connect two thoughts, or to mark a break in the sentence.

To start with just the first item on that list, we can use dashes in exactly the same way as parentheses to set off non-essential information from the rest of the sentence. Let's take another example:

I had to take my cat to the vet she had a very bad fever so I didn't get around to grading your tests this weekend.

This one isn't quite as bad as the last one, but it could still use a little work. Let's see how we could clean it up a little with dashes:

I had to take my cat to the vet - she had a very bad fever - so I didn't get around to grading your tests this weekend.

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