Punctuating for impact: colons, dashes, and parentheses


The first consideration of punctuation is grammar: the mark must fall within the scope allotted to it grammatically. But the second is rhetoric. To punctuate beyond mere correctness, to punctuate with verve and flair, to punctuate so as to more clearly elucidate meaning, you must consider rhetoric.

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IC: word — word
IC: phrase — phrase
IC: clause (D or I) — clause

Colons and dashes compared

Nearly anything the colon can introduce, the dash can as well — but the style, tone, and sometimes the import will alter.

■ The colon is tight and tidy, crafted and polished: it represents deliberate (and deliberative) thought.

■ The colon can also be formal.

■ The dash is informal — it suggests a hasty or casual thought tossed off.

■ The dash is strong — it calls attention to what it sets off.

■ A colon signals that what follows is a spelling out, a detailing of what was formally announced in the clause preceding it.

■ The colon throws the reader’s attention forward, while the dash as a linking device throws the reader’s attention backward.

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— word — (word)
— phrase — (phrase)
— clause — (clause)

Dashes and parentheses compared

Nearly anything that can be set apart by a pair of dashes can be set apart by a set of parentheses, either in the midst of or at the end of a sentence.

■ The dash tends to set off or enclose short phrases for emphasis, and to enclose longer structures that might otherwise be difficult to parse.

■ Dashes proclaim loudly; parentheses speak sotto voce.

■ Parentheses often (but not always) have a literary effect.

Compare . . .

It has nothing to do with beliefs. The Way’s crime is not unorthodox teaching: it’s murder of the mind.

It has nothing to do with beliefs. The Way’s crime is not unorthodox teaching—it’s murder of the mind.

The Way’s crime is not unorthodox teaching. It’s murder of the mind. (And it has nothing to do with beliefs.)


All three structures can easily be used to offer authorial comment, but the dash and parentheses will appear to do so more subjectively. The dash and parens are often used also to provide “asides” that interrupt sentence flow.

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The Friday beer bust, flexible working hours, the excitement of the job — we have it all.

Do cultural perks — the beer bust, flexible working hours, the excitement of the job — make up for the flat stock options?

To preserve the value of those options — and thus reward employees — a company can employ a number of tactics.

With such false or immature motives — which, by the way, they’re very reluctant to examine or discuss — I don’t see how anything good can come of such research.

Pat Morrison, a systems engineer for Cisco Systems Inc., has no permanent desk or office at work — and that suits him just fine.

If Microsoft is not reined in through government regulation, Reback warns, Silicon Valley may lose jobs — and more.


For best results, the review should include the owner (the performer) of the process as well as the “customer” (the requester or benefactor) of the process.

Once you have finished your directory structure, you will have to merge your code, since Java does not distinguish between class interface (declaration) and implementation (definition) as C++ does.

The only case you have to worry about is where your destructor must also release system resources (such as open files) or perform some other global action (such as removing a corresponding object from a global list).

In order for any business process step to be adequately defined and tested for feasibility, expected environmental information (such as controls and constraints) and resource capacities (known also as “mechanism”) must be considered.

“For years I’d heard people say San Jose was dirty and dangerous. But (and she looked out again at the tranquil vista) this is so, well, nice.”

The two together

In C++, you have to be extremely careful about who owns a pointer — about, that is, whether the object or a caller has the right to delete, and the responsibility (or blame) for deleting, the pointer.

From a class taught through UCSC Extension in the mid-’90s through the mid 2000s