Tag Archives: proofreading

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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Use concluding words to state your main point.

When you are writing a document to persuade your reader about an idea, you present your supporting ideas or evidence leading up to the main point. If you do this well, your reader will come to the same conclusion that you are trying to make.

To show that you have finished making your argument (i.e., completed writing about the reasons for your idea) and are about to state the main idea, you use a concluding word. A concluding word tells the reader, “Based on this information, I conclude that . . . .” Sample concluding words and phrases are thus, therefore, in conclusion, and as a consequence.

These concluding words provide a signpost for the reader. They say, “I’m done giving the evidence, and now I’m going to tell you the idea that I want you to believe.”

You may be able to make your main point without them. However, they are very effective for helping the reader identify what it is you want them to understand.

This is the strategy for day 81 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

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Those doggoned sentences.

Peanut the elephant from Spencer Quinn's "To Fetch a Thief".

I love dogs, and I love a good mystery. So when I came across the Chet and Bernie mystery series, I was ecstatic. The books are narrated from the perspective of Chet, the dog. I really enjoyed this as too many times in books and movies, animals are overly anthropomorphized.

I cuddled up at night with books one and two, Dog on It and Thereby Hangs a Tail. I couldn’t wait to get book three, To Fetch a Thief. In this book, Chet and Bernie, Bernie being a private detective and Chet’s owner, set out to find a missing elephant, Peanut. Peanut was the main attraction in a small, family-owned traveling circus that happened by Chet and Bernie’s town. The more they learned about Peanut and her trainer, the more they found that she just wasn’t missing. She may have been kidnapped.

As I delved into To Fetch a Thief, I was really into the mystery like I was with the previous two books. Then, I got around to the middle of the book, and something strange was happening. At first, I didn’t want to believe what was happening, couldn’t believe it. Sentences were becoming a blur, often times not making any sense at all. I just kept shaking it off thinking these were minor errors that had been overlooked. But it kept happening.

I started noticing misspelled words, run-ons, overly hyphenated statements, and other writing blights. It was true; this book had taken a turn for the worse. I soon felt that I was missing the great story of Chet and Bernie’s adventure in the search for Peanut. Poor Peanut. Poor beloved dog mystery series!  Continue reading

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