Parentheses Vs. Dashes: A Basic Guide

Parentheses and dashes are used to demonstrate that a piece of information is nonessential or supplementary to the main idea. When you need to provide additional information about a previous statement, these punctuations come to play. This article looks at Parentheses vs. Dashes and how to utilize them in writing.

Parentheses: An Overview

Parentheses () are paired punctuation marks that are commonly used to add an explanatory note to an expression, sentence, or paragraph. They can also set off lists or a sentence with two elements that need particular emphasis.

Parentheses are used to enclose clarifying and additional information about a sentence. They occur in pairs and should not be used singly. Parentheses appear across all writing genres but should be used sparingly in formal writing.

Uses of Parentheses

The most apparent use of the parentheses is to provide extra information about a statement, word, or phrase. However, there are several other uses.

1. To provide additional information

Parentheses are valuable in providing extra information about a preceding word, phrase, or whole sentence. It is essential to take caution when introducing a piece of information within the sentence, so it doesn’t alter its meaning.

The information provided in parentheses is usually nonessential and doesn’t affect the sentence’s clarity or purpose when omitted.


  • Nathan’s twin (Michael) is kind.
  • You left your jacket (the blue one) in my car.
  • Allison is a brilliant (and smart) student.

2. To include citations

Citations provide facts and information about book or article sources and are placed in parentheses. For example:

  • Education empowers individuals to make better life decisions (Raphael and Steve, 2006).
  • Williams (2002) described philosophy as…
  • The green sea turtle lives on and around Turtle Island, a Caribbean chain of islands in the Atlantic Ocean (Wikipedia).

Similarly, academic writings indicate charts, illustrations, and charts in parentheses to direct a reader. For example.

  • In 2003, school dropouts drastically decreased by 50 percent (See Table 2).
  • There has been a steady decline in the number of students dropping out of school ever since 2006 (See Chart 10).

3. Acronyms and abbreviations.

Parentheses are used to provide the meanings of abbreviations or acronyms introduced in writing.

  • The present administration of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has recorded an enormous milestone.
  • World Health Day is held on April 7 every year to mark the founding of WHO (World Health Organization).

4. Lettered or Numbered lists.

Letters and numbers used to separate a list to make comprehension easier are placed in parentheses.

  • You are required to bring three things to the examination venue: (1) a pencil, (2) a sheet of paper (3) a pen.
  • Take note of the following when writing your essay: (a) punctuate correctly, (b) use the proper tenses (c) check for spelling errors.

Dashes: When to Use

The dash— signals an interruption, a pause, or a slight break in a sentence. It draws attention and adds emphasis to a sentence. When using dashes in writing, no space should be left on either side of the punctuation.

Commonly used in fiction and casual writing, the overuse of dashes provides an impression of hastiness and carelessness. Sometimes, two dashes are required; before and after the word/phrase introduced.

Dashes can be used to introduce an explanation or restatement in place of expressions such as, in other words, namely. The clause after the dash must begin with a lowercase letter.


  • Michael patiently waited for the grammar teacher—he was determined to get his assignment marked.
  • The models bowed—except for their leader—amidst the cheers.
  • They bought several items at the fair—clothes, jewelry, and shoes.
  • The three most influential people in my life—my wife, daughter, and grandma—are my biggest cheerleaders.

Parentheses vs. Dashes

Parentheses and dashes are essential punctuation marks in English. Dashes signal an interruption or pause that draws attention and emphasizes a part of the sentence.

Parentheses provide extra information on a point. Both punctuations are essential for introducing clarifying information into sentences.

While parentheses are proper for formal writing, dashes are less formal and appropriate for informal writing. In some cases, a pair of dashes can replace a pair of parentheses.

However, punctuation marks should be omitted when using dashes in place of parentheses. A tip to note when using both punctuations is this: the original sentence should still convey the intended meaning without them.

person holding on red pen while writing on book
Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

To Wrap Up

Parentheses and dashes are key punctuation marks used in writing to clarify and add additional information. When used judiciously, they serve as great tools for providing emphasis and clarifying sentences.

However, take caution when using them. Overuse will result in sloppy writing, which can be hard to understand.

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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