Using parentheses, commas or dashes to set off an aside

Punctuation has a purpose. When you want to add information in the middle of a sentence that doesn’t quite fit the flow but is essential, the punctuation you employ to set it off signals different levels of emphasis for the reader.

Consider these:

With no punctuation, the phrase “on Christmas Day” fits neatly in the sentence, adding information but not focusing on that:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door on Christmas Day to deliver the news.

Set off by commas, the phrase “on Christmas Day” seems more like an aside, something less important than the rest of the information:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door, on Christmas Day, to deliver the news.

Set off with parentheses, the phrase “on Christmas Day” seems almost whispered or hidden:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door (on Christmas Day) to deliver the news.

Set off with dashes, the phrase “on Christmas Day” is fairly shouted – Can you believe he would have the gall to show up on that day? – not just added information:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door — on Christmas Day — to deliver the news.

So use the punctuation carefully to give your aside the emphasis that you intend.

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