How to Use Parentheses, Dash, and Hyphen

Updated on March 12, 2018
VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Why Correct Punctuation is Important

Correct punctuation makes your sentence clear to read. To write and edit your grammar effectively, you need to know rules for commas, semi-colons, and colons first. Although you don't use them as often, you also need to know the rules for using parenthesis, dashes, and hyphens.

What is the Difference?

Dashes, parentheses and commas can actually be used interchangeably as a way to mark some of the information in a sentence as not necessary to the main meaning (non-restrictive information for you grammar wizards). What is the difference?

Comma is the most common way to include extra information. So, you probably want to use a comma most of the time. For example:

Extra information, which you don't really need to understand the sentence, should usually be set apart by using commas.

Parentheses show that the information is so unnecessary that you could almost not include it. Sometimes parentheses are used just to give a different name for something too. Parentheses are the least emphatic and signal that the information is just worth a mention or is extraneous to the main point. For example:

Extra information (which you don't really need to understand the sentence) should usually be set apart by using commas.

Dashes can be used in many places you would use parentheses and sometimes in place of commas. Dashes are the most emphatic and call the greatest attention to the extra information.

Extra information--which you don't really need to understand the sentence--should usually be set apart by using commas.

Comparison Chart

Punctuation Mark
Frequency
What it means
comma
most common
extra information that you probably need to know
parentheses
use sometimes
extra information that is good to know but isn't necessary
dash
least common
draws attention to the information

Sample Parenthesis Use

My adopted daughter (who had just become an American citizen) loved waving the American flags on her first 4th of July celebration.
My adopted daughter (who had just become an American citizen) loved waving the American flags on her first 4th of July celebration. | Source

Using Parenthesis in Academic Writing

Don't overuse parentheses in academic writing, but these punctuation marks can be a useful way to let the reader know interesting information which is not essential to the main point of the sentence. You can also use them to establish a more informal tone and voice.

  • Sometimes, grading English essays all night can make your instructor need a lot of coffee (black, with lots of sugar).
  • If you didn't know it before (you probably do now) making a good grade on your English essay is going to take a lot of work.
  • William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator (published from 1935 to 1865), promoted radical anti-slavery views.

Differences in Meaning

It depends. All of these punctuation marks can let you put unecessary but interesting information in a sentence, but they don't emphasize that information in the same way. Here is the difference in meaning:

  • Commas make the information seem more integrated into the main part of the sentence.
  • Parentheses makes the information seem more of an aside, and not as important.
  • Dashes tend to emphasize the added information, as if it makes an important distinction between other possibilities.

Notice the different emphasis in the following examples:

  1. Cheryl worked in the bookstore, the one near campus.
  2. Cheryl worked in the bookstore--the one near campus.
  3. Cheryl worked in the bookstore (the one near campus).

Rules for Parentheses and Brackets

Parentheses, Hyphen and Dash Quiz

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How to Type Correctly

Most computer keyboards have the hyphen (-) and underscore (_) on the same key. The hyphen and dash are typed without using the "shift" key.

Hyphen: type the key just once and don't have any spaces on either side.

  • single-sided (no spaces)
  • Not: single - sided

Dash: type the key twice without spaces between words or between dashes.

  • I'm coming to see you--don't forget.

Not: I'm coming to see you - - don't forget!

Use Dash for Informal Writing

I love to eat dessert first--and last!
I love to eat dessert first--and last! | Source

Should You Use the Dash?

Since dashes are more informal, they are quite common in texting, emails, letters or other personal writing. Unless your instructor tells you to use them, they are usually not appropriate for formal writing. However, there is one exception. Dashes work well when you writing a conversation. Since people often shift their thoughts as they speak, a dash can show this more clearly than a comma. For instance:

Just as Juan was leaving for the wedding, Sherry called out, "Don't forget to pick up Grandma--or wait, I'll pick her up and you go get the cake. No--forget that-- I'll pick up the cake and you get Grandma and the flowers for the reception."

Using Hyphen, Dash and Parenthesis in Sentences

My daughter, who insisted on getting her license the day she turned 16, was self-assured about her writing--until she got into an accident (which was completely her fault).
My daughter, who insisted on getting her license the day she turned 16, was self-assured about her writing--until she got into an accident (which was completely her fault). | Source

List of Common Hyphenated Words

well-thumbed
sharp-tongued
part-time
fire-resistant
pay-as-you-go
co-chair
fine-tune
editor-in-chief
pre-Depression era
anti-American
de-emphasize
anti-smoking
anti-inflamitory
sign-in table
co-op
ex-husband
self-assured
T-shirt
mid-1920s
mid-October
hard-of-hearing
two-thirds
seventy-five
German-speaking
low-budget
business-class
sister-in-law
cross-reference

Proper Use

Dashes are an informal type of punctuation mark. You can use a dash to:

1. Show a change of thought, or break in sentence flow.

  • I'm going to get a great grade on the test--don't laugh at me!
  • English writing is my favorite subject--until I get my grade on the essays.

2. Introduce a list (like a colon).

  • Using dash: English instructors are always noticing the same errors on my essays--misplaced modifiers, poor word choices, incorrect commas and too many dashes.
  • Using a colon: English instructors are always noticing the same errors on my essays: misplaced modifiers, poor word choices, incorrect commas and too many dashes.

3. Show that some information is not necessary to the main meaning of the sentence (like commas or parenthesis).

  • Using Dashes: My English instructor--who is from California--has lived in Texas for 20 years but still doesn't own any cowboy boots.
  • Using commas: My English instructor, who is from California, has lived in Texas for 20 years but still doesn't own any cowboy boots.
  • Using parenthesis: My English instructor (who is from California) has lived in Texas for 20 years but still doesn't own any cowboy boots.

However, in a formal essay, none of the above examples are really the best way to say this information. Instead, try moving the information around to emphasize the contrast and using a transition word like "Although."

Although she has lived in Texas for 20 years, my English instructor, who is from California, still doesn't own any cowboy boots

Hyphen Rules

There isn't a standard list of words that use a hyphen. Why is that? Hyphens are used to make reading a word easier, and sometimes words that started out as hyphenated will eventually become a single word. Moreover, different manuals of style have different rules for using hyphens. Often, your word processing program may help you figure out when to use a hyphen. If not, consult a dictionary.

Here are some common ways to use a hyphen:

1. To form new words. Sometimes you put a hyphen between two words to create a new word with a new meaning (out-of-date).

2. To Prevent Misunderstanding. Other times, we use hyphens inside a word to prevent it from being misunderstood (resign doesn't mean the same as re-sign, sign again).

3. In Numbers and Fractions. It is a convention to use a hyphen between numbers 21-99 when you write them: seventy-four; nine hundred and forty-five; twelve thousand, four hundred and eighty-eight. We also use hyphens in fractions: one-third, three-fifths. This convention of putting hyphens in numbers includes when we talk about dates like the Twenty-First Century, or nine-year project.

Questions & Answers

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      • VirginiaLynne profile image
        Author

        Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

        Thanks Carol! I actually need to go and look these rules up sometime too!

      • carol7777 profile image

        carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

        I need to bookmark this as I always forget these little details. Excellent hub and I always appreciate learning old things over again. VOted Up and sharing.

      • VirginiaLynne profile image
        Author

        Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

        So glad I have helped Eiddwen! Have a great weekend too!

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

        Interesting and so useful.

        Thanks for this gem and here's to so many more to follow Virginia.

        I am saving this one for easy reference.

        Enjoy your weekend.

        Eddy.

      • VirginiaLynne profile image
        Author

        Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

        Hi Pennypines--I acutally got interested in doing this Hub because on the last two sets of essays I graded, I found myself telling so many of my students they needed hyphens on this word and that. So I consulted about ten different style manuals, only to find out that the one thing they all agreed on was that there was not hard-and-fast rule for hyphens (see! I just had to insert that one!). Moreover, they seem to be disappearing as people do more and more online writing. Having studied the history of how English has changed, I'm actually not adverse to change. However, I do want language to be clear and understandable!

      • Pennypines profile image

        Lucille Apcar 5 years ago from Mariposa, California, U.S.A.

        I deplore the ommission of the hyphen in many cases, although in common use today. Such words as co-operation instead of cooperation seem more appropriate.

        Do you have a comment on this?

      • Darkproxy profile image

        Darkproxy 5 years ago from Ohio

        wow thank you this is such a big help

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