How Do You Choose the Right Punctuation? Emphasis Is Your Clue


A subscriber to my ezine Add Power to Your Pen asked, “Should I put spaces before/after a dash?” Getting on a roll, I answered a different question: when to use a dash vs. commas vs. parentheses to offset phrases in your sentences? The answer will be useful to professional administrators or anyone who writes.

Of these punctuation choices—dashes, commas, or parentheses—how do you select the one to use?

Degree of Emphasis Is Your Clue

First, consider the degree of emphasis you want to create with the phase as part of your sentence. Dashes set off a phrase in a highly visible way. For greatest emphasis—when you want the phrase to stand out—use long or “em” dashes (not the shorter “n” dashes). To imply the phase is an aside (something that’s helpful but doesn’t beg for special emphasis), use parentheses. For a phrase that doesn’t need to stand out, requiring less emphasis, use commas to set it off. (Notice how these sentences demonstrate exactly that!)

So the hierarchy of emphasis is:

1) dashes

2) parentheses

3) commas

Space or No Space Question

For clear explanations of all things punctuation, a good reference is The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande. To the question about dashes requiring a space before/after them, Casagrande’s answer would be “it depends.”

I like Casagrande’s book because it guides correct usage depending on its application. Her guide applies to books, journalism, and business, as well as science and academic publications. On the subject of “em” dash spacing, for books, scientific, and academic applications, she says no space before/after the dash. For news media and business, she says one space before/after the dash. My own preference for all of these is no space.

Given the proliferation of texting and other shortcuts, is it any surprise that punctuation errors are more common than ever? As a conscientious admin, how do you know what’s right? I offer a free 3-page summary of “what to use when” as a handy guide. To request it, email me with “Punctuation Guide” in the subject line.


With the right references at your fingertips, you won’t go wrong! Barbara McNichol is passionate about helping administrative professionals add power to their pen. To assist in this mission, she has created a Word Trippers Tips resource to quickly find the right word when it matters most. It allows you to improve your writing through excellent weekly resources in your inbox, including a webinar, crossword puzzles, and a Word Tripper of the Week for 52 weeks. Enjoy a $30 discount at checkout with the code ODI at


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