A Defense of Dashes—and (a Paean to) Parentheses

English sentences are full of clauses that add details and qualifications crucial to the thought being expressed. For a listener or reader to understand these sentences, we have to separate the clauses from the main subject and verb of the sentence—and from each other. When we speak, pauses and changes in tone tell our listeners which parts of the sentence are its subject and verb and which are the added descriptions, asides, and interjections. When we write, we use punctuation, mainly commas. But commas can’t express the range of pauses and changes in tone we use to clarify our meaning in speech; for example, commas (often) do not tell the reader that the clause is an aside or interjection. More than two commas in a sentence (other than in a list) can cause the reader to wonder which commas go with which clause.

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