3 Types of Erroneous Use of Dashes

By Mark Nichol

Dashes, like semicolons, are basically commas with superpowers. However, while semicolons take the place of commas to set off independent clauses or separate a series of list items in which at least one item itself consists of a list, a single dash denotes an abrupt break in syntax, and a pair of dashes signal a parenthetical phrase that is more emphatic than one bracketed by commas (or parentheses). In the following examples, though, dashes are misused. Discussion after each sentence describes the problem, and a revision illustrates a solution.

1. Everybody thinks their job title should be capitalized—and why not—it’s about them.

In this sentence, the writer has conflated the two functions of a dash. What follows capitalized is an emphatically delivered opinion about the previous assertion, and the first dash is correct, but then the writer seeks to repeat the effect by setting off “it’s about them.” However, the result is that “and why not” mistakenly appears to be a parenthetical phrase. For this reason, single dashes cannot be used consecutively, even at a greater remove, so the second emphatic phrase must be distinguished in another way: “Everybody thinks their job title should be capitalized—and why not? It’s about them.”

2. Changing channels on the radio while driving—even adjusting your vehicle’s climate controls are distracting activities.

Here, the opposite error is committed. The writer apparently intended to sequester a parenthetical phrase from the main clause but neglected to provide a complementary second dash: “Changing channels on the radio while driving—and even adjusting your vehicle’s climate controls—are distracting activities.”

3. Combined with a focus on disruptive innovations like artificial intelligence, telehealth, and virtual care—an abundance of new data is becoming available to healthcare providers.

Here, the flaw is that the dash is inserted in place of a comma to suggest a syntactical swerve, but the syntax itself does not take off in a new direction, and a quotidian comma is appropriate: “Combined with a focus on disruptive innovations like artificial intelligence, telehealth, and virtual care, an abundance of new data is becoming available to healthcare providers.”

Recommended for you: « »



2 Responses to “3 Types of Erroneous Use of Dashes”

  • TheBluebird11

    Agree with Andy. Singular should match. “Changing channels…IS a distracting activity.”

  • Andy Knoedler

    I would’ve changed #2 to this:
    Changing channels on the radio while driving—or even adjusting your vehicle’s climate controls—is a distracting activity.

Leave a comment: