When to Use Em Dashes, Parentheses, and Commas?

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According to Roy Peter Clark, in Writing Tools: Fifty Essential Strategies for Every Writer, “Punctuation comes from the Latin word punctus, or “point.” Those funny dots, lines, and squiggles help writers point the way. “There is a tendency to use marks of punctuation interchangeably; and this is acceptable in personal writing and using personal style in writing a novel or a story.

In general, any of these three marks—em dashes, parentheses, commas—serve to separate information that is incidental. However, there are subtle distinctions that can make usage more credible in business writing—and all writing, in my opinion.

Credible uses for each

Em dashes:

The teacher—who wears red socks—is a fan of Mark Twain.

The em dashes set off the information from the main sentence without making it unimportant as in, “you need to know that she wears red socks.”


The teacher (who wears red socks) is a fan of Mark Twain.

Parentheses indicate that the information is incidental, as in “oh, by the way…”


The teacher, who wears red socks, is a fan of Mark Twain.

The commas indicate that the information is integral to the sentence, as in “the particular teacher who specifically wears red socks.”
Note: The meaning here might be just as effective without commas.

Ask yourself if you want the information to be—

  • helpful backstory (em dashes),
  • a trivial aside (parentheses), or
  • integral to the sentence (commas).

Consult these examples when trying to decide what punctuation fits the exact meaning you want to portray in your document. Let me help you put your best word forward. Contact me at dmariemarks@gmail.com.

#amwriting #amediting #grammar




About The dutty is "the ground," the foundation, the earth--just like words are part of the foundation on which I build my life.

Reason for being: To tell stories and help writers and others with a message to put their best word forward.
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1 Response to When to Use Em Dashes, Parentheses, and Commas?

  1. Dawn Marks says:

    Great information. Thank you

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