Dashes or Rules in Academic and Scientific Writing

Dashes or Rules
The most common use of en or em dashes (also called ‘rules’) in the running prose of a scholarly paper is to mark parenthetical clauses, in which case the dashes indicate a more pronounced break in the sentence than commas would and highlight the parenthetical clause more than parentheses would. If the clause appears in the middle of a sentence, dashes should surround the clause (e.g., ‘I just saw a bear – a big black one! – raiding the bird feeder’), but when the clause appears at the end of the sentence, the opening dash functions rather like a colon and a closing dash is not required (as in ‘I just saw a bear – a big black one!’ or ‘The frost destroyed some of the vegetables – the tomatoes, beans and carrots’). No punctuation should precede an opening parenthetical dash, and while the closing dash of a parenthetical clause can be preceded by a question or exclamation mark (as I have used in the first example above), it should not be preceded by a comma, semicolon, colon or full stop. Although en or em dashes are acceptable in scholarly prose, they are less formal than colons and often suggest an aside or afterthought, so excessive use of this construction (in every sentence, for instance) is poor style, and as a general rule no more than one parenthetical or explanatory clause marked by dashes should be used in a single sentence. In running text either en or em dashes but never a combination of the two should be used, and spaces should appear around the en dash (as in the examples above) when used in the ways described in this paragraph, but not around the em dash (e.g., ‘The frost destroyed some of the vegetables—the tomatoes, beans and carrots’).

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