Writing Topic: Commas and Dashes

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Generally speaking, commas help organize parts of a sentence.  While they often signal the natural pauses in the flow of a sentence, they are not breath marks; casually sprinkling commas over a long or convoluted sentence will not make the sentence more readable. Instead, think of commas as (1) links between ideas in a given sentence, whether those ideas are expressed in clauses, phrases, or single words, or (2) dividers that set apart clauses, phrases, or single words.

1. Linking Commas
2. Dividing Commas


If your “by the way” information is more complex ­– a phrase involving internal punctuation, for example – use dashes to set it off from the rest of the sentence.

On your computer, type a dash as two hyphens to distinguish a dash from a hyphen.

  1. Use a dash to set off an interruption in your sentence.

When she met her assigned roommate – Bob, the very bearded, very friendly, but very clearly male Linguistics major – Shari wondered if the Residence Admissions office had made a serious mistake.

As evidenced in the preceding example, dashes signal a stronger, more emphatic shift than commas do.

  1. In addition to setting off complex “by the way” phrases, dashes can be used to emphasize a change in thought or emotion in a sentence.

He enjoyed going to the campus pub on Thursday night – but he truly loved attending his 8:30 a.m. biochemistry lecture on Fridays.            

  1. Dashes may also be used to link a list to the main part of a sentence. Although colons also serve this function, you may choose to use a dash when less formality and more emphasis seems appropriate.

After the road trip, the car was crammed with evidence of a successful holiday ­– burger wrappers, maps, postcards, coffee cups, film canisters, ferry receipts, and one unclaimed sock.

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