Dashes and Parentheses

Dashes and parentheses serve much the same purpose: to insert a thought that relates to the content of a sentence but is not essential to it. For example:

I used the dash — which indicates a dramatic pause — to set off part of my sentence.
I used parentheses (which indicate an aside) to set off part of my sentence.

In both cases, you could set off the internal phrases with commas instead. Compared to dashes and parentheses, commas are less disruptive, and the phrase they enclose will seem more integral to the larger sentence.

Dashes and parentheses pose one danger: they can tempt to you to slip nonessential comments and explanations into your writing. For this reason, you should mostly avoid them. Parentheses and dashes often serve as a way to add padding, not content. Avoid padding. Nobody likes it but students desperate to meet a page requirement.

Brackets, which allow you to form parentheticals within parentheses, pose an even greater danger. You can see why in this illustration of disorderly thinking and writing:

I have used brackets (which I think are a bad idea [though I still sometimes use them]) in writing this example.
Punctuation

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