In last week’s blog, we discussed how to use colons properly. Today, we’ll look at another piece of punctuation that is infrequently used in everyday life but seems to show up all the time on the ACT: the dash.
There are two ways to use dashes in a sentence, each one with a distinct purpose. The first is the single dash. Because we have already discussed colons, our work with the single dash is going to be simple: single dashes function in the same way as colons. If you think back to last week, we said that a colon needed an independent clause to the left of it and that there were three things that could go to the right: a list, an elaboration or summary, or another independent clause. Those rules also apply to single dashes.
You can also use dashes in pairs. When two dashes are used in a sentence, the intent is to separate non-essential information from the rest of the sentence. Let’s take a look at an example:
The students were happy to explore Paris—complete with its beautiful churches, monuments, and museums—and practice French with locals.
In this case, “complete with its beautiful churches, monuments, and museums,” while certainly accurate information about Paris, is not grammatically or contextually essential to the rest of the sentence. In other words, we could delete everything between the two dashes and the sentence would still work:
The students were happy to explore Paris and practice French with locals.
In fact, that’s the easiest way to understand the use of double dashes on the ACT. If you delete everything between the two dashes and the rest of the sentence still makes sense, the dashes are almost certainly correct.
In situations similar to this example, where a sentence contains non-essential information, the ACT alternates between using two commas and using two dashes to signify that the information is less important. While each usage is valid, you must be consistent. Use two dashes or two commas: do not use one of each.
Let’s take a quick look at a sample ACT question to illustrate this rule.
1. Allison enjoyed studying for Art History—her favorite class, because she was able to learn about Picasso and Monet.
A. NO CHANGE
B. class because she was able to learn
C. class—because she was able to learn
D. class; because she was able to learn
Here, only answer choice C leaves us with a complete sentence when we eliminate the information between the two dashes, and the use of a dash to end the non-essential information is consistent with the use of a dash to begin it.
I hope these posts about clauses and punctuation have been helpful! Next time, we’ll shift our attention back to the Math section. See you soon!