The Business of Side Talk: Comma, Em Dash, and Parentheses

You probably know you should set off parenthetical expressions with a comma, as in this example:

The order, 150 silicone dildos and 75 butt plugs, should be delivered before Valentine’s Day since our customers buy sex toys as gifts.

But what about parentheses? It’s called a parenthetical expression after all! Can we set off the same parenthetical expression within parentheses? And what about dashes? What’s the difference?

Sure, you could go ahead and use parentheses or em dash in the example above. It would look like this:

The order–150 silicone dildos and 75 butt plugs–should be delivered before Valentine’s Day since our customers buy sex toys as gifts.

The order (150 silicone dildos and 75 butt plugs) should be delivered before Valentine’s Day since our customers buy sex toys as gifts.

But it wouldn’t be quite right. Commas, parentheses, and em-dashes each have their particular meanings.

Use comma to set off a parenthetical expression that requires only a slight break. That is, the parenthetical expression flows well as part of the greater sentence, as in our original example.

The order, 150 silicone dildos and 75 butt plugs, should be delivered before Valentine’s Day since our customers buy sex toys as gifts.

Use em dash to set off a parenthetical expression that requires a strong break because it amplifies or explains something or because it is sudden:

The order–unless you want it to be our last order–should be delivered before Valentine’s Day since our customers buy sex toys as gifts.

Use parentheses to set off a parenthetical expression that requires a strong break and is not as closely related to the rest of the sentence:

The order (attached) should be delivered before Valentine’s Day since our customers buy sex toys as gifts.

You can use all of these punctuation marks to set apart parenthetical expressions in your writing. Ask yourself, does this expression flow with the rest of the sentence? (Use comma.) Does it add sudden amplification? (Use em dash.) Or is it not very closely related to the rest of the sentence? (Use parentheses.)

The Sexy Grammarian offers Free Sexy Grammar Lessons as well as Private Sessions, Custom Edits, and Intimate Workshops for all kinds of writers. Get a Free Private Session today and watch your writing project explode!

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  1. just wanted you to know that i am among the many who truly appreciate your blog. i’ve shared your site with my facebook friends and look forward to more scintillating posts! šŸ˜‰

  2. Thanks so much, and likewise, I greatly admire both your poetic blog and your photo tumble. Anyone who describes herself as a dumpling is a-okay in my book!

    • Norm
    • March 22nd, 2012

    Um, Sexy G., I am endlessly confused by punctuation in relation to em dashes and parentheses. You have tried to steer me in the right direction, and I’ve used your words of wisdom to my benefit. However, I need to understand why you used a period in one of your parenthetically parenthetical expressions at the end of your post, but not in the other two (unless, that is, you were just trying to get a comment out of me).

    Your faithful reader,

    Norm Howard

    • You’re right, Norm. I screwed that up, and I’m going to fix it right away. It’s no fair when the teacher throws her pupil off course like that, but I do get a little thrill when my students catch my mistakes. Well done!

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