Tag Archives: edit

The Comma Versus the Dash for Emphasis

Comma or Dash?

Here’s the question: You want to add an emphatic statement to the end of a sentence, something that will catch the readers’ attention. To create reader focus, you want to create a brief pause prior to the emphatic statement. But do you use a comma or a dash?

Bad Example and Explanation

Here’s an example of the wrong way to do it:

It’s reality, and the subject of a jury-prize-winning film in the GE Focus Forward Film Competition. (http://news.yahoo.com/chemist-hopes-artificial-leaf-power-civilization-using-photosynthesis-173654018–abc-news-tech.html)

See that comma? The writer is using the comma to set off the final information and to create impact, i.e., emphasis. That comma is a problem.

One of the most common uses for commas is to signal the end of a complete sentence, a.k.a. independent clause, that the writer is linking to another complete sentence with a conjunction (e.g., and, but). The sample sentence begins with the independent clause “It’s reality” and the conjunction “and.” The comma suggests that the information following “and” will be another complete sentence, which is not true.

In fact, the entire descriptive phrase “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film…” is linked to the verb “is” found in the contraction “it’s.” As evidence of this, the writer could have written “It’s reality, and it’s the subject of a . . . .” Unfortunately, the writer didn’t do this. By using the comma to create an emphatic pause, the writer separated “it” from its description.

Still not convinced that the comma is wrong? Try this: Separate the subject from its first description and see if it looks right. “It’s, reality” is incorrect because it separates the subject “it” from its description, “reality.” The subject and the first description need to be together, not separated by a comma. The subject and second description also need to be together, but the comma separates them.

In brief, the comma needs to go.

Solution: Use a Dash

How, then, could the writer have created the pause needed to create emphasis? Answer: use an em dash, which is the long dash.

Em dashes have several uses, but the primary use is to create a pause before a final statement that is joined by a conjunction and would otherwise seems like part of the grammatical structure of the sentence. The long pause will cause the reader to focus on the final statement.

Examples of commas versus dashes for emphasis:

1. He is a veteran, a hero. (This doesn’t need a dash because “a hero” isn’t joined by a conjunction and because leaving out the comma would make an ungrammatical sentence.)

2. He is a veteran–and a great father. (This uses an em dash to separate and emphasize “a great father,” which the conjunction “and” would otherwise join to the first part of the sentence.)

If the writer of the bad example wanted to create emphasis on “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film . . . ,” the writer should have used an em dash.

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How Many Chaplains?

Our friend, the English teacher in Iran, asked another good question. Unlike his questions about the singular or plural use of “any,” this one has a straightforward answer. (Fortunately!) Here’s his question.

The Question

I have just bought a novel, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 

There is a page about Jonathan Swift’s life. There, I found a sentence which I cannot analyze grammatically, no matter how much I am scratching my head to come up with an answer. The sentence is: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as chaplain to a lord justice.” 

To me, this sentence is 100% wrong grammatically. It should be: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as A chaplain to a lord justice.” 

Here is my reason: “chaplain” cannot be used without an “A” in front of it because it is in singular and an “A” is needed in front of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with me?  Continue reading


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No Problems

Our new friend, an English teacher from Iran, poses another complicated question about the use of “any.”

Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“English is not my mother tongue language. But I don’t have any ………… when I speak with native speakers of English. I can understand them very well.”

a) problems
b) problem

Short answer

This is a good question, but one without a clear answer. The short answer is that “any problems” is the more common way to say this. (Another common way to say this is “I don’t have a problem.”)

See here for a comparison of usage: http://bit.ly/WnAsbR

But this is sneaky. Let’s look at the long answer.

Long answer

If I say, “I don’t have any problems,” then I admit the possibility that I may have one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problems,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have a single problem. I don’t have problems, but I do have a problem. Then, when the problem occurs, a person may say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have problems,” and I can answer, “That’s right. I don’t have more than one problem, but I do have one problem.” As I said, this is a sneaky way to answer.

On the other hand, if I say, “I don’t have any problem,” then I allow the possibility that I have more than one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problem,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have several problems. I don’t have just one problem, but I have several problems. Then, when problems occur, the person can say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have a problem,” and I can answer “That’s right. I don’t have a single problem, but I do have more than one problem.” This, too, is a sneaky way to answer.

The answers are sneaky because the literal meanings may conflict with the implied meanings. I say one thing, and the listener thinks I mean something else. I answer that I don’t have one problem, or don’t have multiple problems, but the listener will assume I mean zero problems.

To get back to the original question, you have two options.

1. Most common way to say this: “any problems.”

2. Literal answer: Choose “I don’t have any problem” to indicate you don’t have a single problem or choose “I don’t have any problems” to indicate you don’t have multiple problems.

My recommendation: use “any problems.” If you have one problem, you are likely to have other problems, too. If you use “any problems,” the message you send is that not even one problem will occur, thus covering all possibilities.

Perhaps our friend will ask a question about “that” and “which.” By comparison, the answer is much simpler.

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