By Allison VanNest, Grammarly.com
The English language has a lot of rules. From when to spell out numbers, to correct apostrophe usage, to proper spelling, your writing is subject to scrutiny every time someone else reads it. That’s why many writers find formal grammar rules limiting – they may prevent the emergence of an authentic voice.
Dashes and ellipses are two types of punctuation that relax the rules a bit, and help writers to vary their sentence structure. However, both types of punctuation are best used with certain guidelines in mind.
Dash it all!
Let’s start with dashes. These little horizontal lines (-) serve a couple of different purposes. The most common purpose of a dash is to establish a pause in the sentence. Taking this small pause or a “breath” allows for some anticipation about what else is going to happen in the rest of the sentence. For example: “You can walk to the store tonight – just as long as you go well before your bedtime.”
Keep in mind when using a dash to establish a pause, only use one dash per sentence. More than that may confuse the reader.
The second way to use a dash is called a “parenthetical” dash. These dashes are written in sets and are helpful when trying to connect different elements of a sentence or to give some additional information that can help deliver an idea. For example, “I went all the way up to the lock box – which is located at the highest level of the house – and I realized I left my keys in the car.”
The best thing to remember when using parenthetical dashes is that the sentence must make sense, even if the information inside the dashes is removed.
Finally, dashes can be used to indicate when dialogue in writing has been interrupted by something else. For example: “I need to run to the store tonight to pick out a new shirt for the party – Wow! Did you just hear that loud car horn?”
Now let’s talk about the other loosely controlled piece of punctuation, ellipses. These three consecutive periods are becoming increasingly popular as more and more people use social media, emails, and texts. When used correctly, these three periods can help to make writing feel more informal and relaxed.
Most of the time ellipses are used to make up for missing or unnecessary text, or to create a pause in the sentence. For instance, when writing out quotes for a news story, a writer may be limited to how long their article can be, so they’ll use ellipses as a way to shorten the sentence. Taking out unnecessary information that doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence can be an easy way to limit redundancy. For example, “The boy was walking along the side of the road… then all of a sudden he disappeared.”
An ellipse can also be used to create a break or pause in a sentence. For example: “I don’t know… I thought I knew what I wanted, but… I’m just not sure I want to be married to you anymore.”
In this example, the ellipse creates the necessary pauses in this sentence and evokes the emotion needed to articulate exactly how the thought was voiced.
Keep in mind that although dashes and ellipses are great tools to add to your writing, they should not take the place of punctuation and proper sentence structure. However, they can be a great way to highlight a pause or additional thoughts.
Your turn – do you use either in your writing? Why or why not? Other thoughts?
About the Author
A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than 875,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.
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