Dashes and Parentheses

Both of these marks of punctuation allow essay writers to break up the "flow" of the sentences. Dashes make a sharp and distinct break in a sentence and alert readers that additional or explanatory information is about to appear.  Parentheses make an even sharper break and allow writers to add "asides" or supplemental information.

Both dashes and parentheses should be used sparingly, and are usually not used to separate two complete sentences. Remember: They do interrupt the flow of a sentence, and although they can be quite useful at certain times, they shouldn’t be overused.

There is no specific "dash" key on the keyboard. Instead, to create a dash in the appropriate place, type two hyphens ( -- ) with no space before, after, or between each hyphen. MS Word (and some other programs) will automatically create a dash (—) once you hit your space bar. 

Use a single dash to mark an abrupt change or add a dramatic pause:


  • Some people are full of affection—affection for themselves.
  • The lovely Sarah, who donated money for our cause—she passed away last night.

Use a single dash, instead of a colon, to introduce a series of items (here, a dash or a colon are interchangeable):


  • He excelled in three subjects—math, English, and science.

Use a single dash to indicate that someone (an author, etc.) is still living:


  • John Doe, 1987—

Use a single dash, instead of an ellipsis, to indicate an abrupt end of a sentence (such as dialogue):


  • Joe: I told you once before that I was planning on—
  • Mike: No you didn't.   

Use a single dash at the end of a series of items that require some sort of final sentence element:


  • The Amazon Kindle, the iPad, the Kabo Touch—these are all excellent e-reader devices.

Use dashes or parentheses to enclose a parenthetical element within a sentence:


  • Sometimes—and I’m not sure when—I get the feeling as if someone is watching me.
  • Sometimes (and I’m not sure when) I get the feeling as if someone is watching me.

Use parentheses for in-text citations (parenthetical citations):


  • The author notes, "Russia's use of state-owned oil companies has increased" (Smith 22).