An important factor in writing is varying style so that readers do not fall into a stupor. If every sentence is the same length, with little or no breaks—provided through punctuation and sentence structure—then reading becomes monotonous and they phase out.
Academic writing is very prone to this mistake, but, alas and alack, so is creative writing. And, without a doubt, it is always important to diversify our writing styles. One of the best methods to manage this is to make use of small, but significant, pauses created by simple sentences, commas, parentheses, and dashes.
We tend to believe that simple sentences are nothing more than “The dog ran” or “The fat cat sat.” While they are indeed short, they need not always be that short. A simple sentence really only lasts to about one, or less than one, line on a page. It will not talk about more than one idea, but this attribute means that it reinforces what we write about.
Further, short sentences break up the monotony of reading. Instead of our readers always coming across two to four line sentences—after all, describing a scene or discussing the lives of protozoa is highly important—and becoming lost in the details, short sentences give our readers little “mental breaks.” Thus, in between long sentences, readers can stop. Then they continue reading. This enhances what we have to say. Additionally, the complex sentences are now more important, because not every sentence is the same.
Commas are a very specific form of punctuation with the very specific purpose of adding small pauses within sentences. There are three ways to use a comma: listing, after introductory information/separating clauses, and offsetting inessential elements. We all learned about listing in school, and that tends to come naturally to us. Whether or not we use the Oxford comma is completely left up to our discretion. Much to the horror of Grammar Nazis.
When using a comma after introductory information, you’re establishing that what comes first fully illuminates the main part (or clause) of the sentence. The information is not the most important piece of information, but it is necessary to understand that which is. Additionally, we use commas to separate independent clauses followed by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) This means that the information prior can stand independently of what follows, but what follows cannot stand alone as it is a related effect. These types of pauses signal what is essential information to our readers, and slow them down as they read so that they have time to interpret what we write.
One of the most enjoyable types of pauses is using commas to offset inessential information. These are the things we don’t necessarily have to tell the reader, but we like it. Further, it offers our readers more information, say her hair color or the color of the cuttlefish when it chose its mate, about our topic. Generally, these inessentials are the first to go when we edit, but they do create nice breaks in what we write and are quite fun.
Parentheses and Dashes
We use parentheses and dashes in much the same manner as we use commas. Therefore, we bring them in to vary our styles so that our readers are not always confronting the same type of punctuation.
Parentheses, more often than not, are used to offset inessential elements or explain something in more detail. You can imagine them as a sort of whisper pushing into the conversation to fully elaborate an idea, add a sarcastic remark, or, as is often the case in academia, establish that something is one thing and another thing (ex. (dis)junctions or m(O)thering). They are a rather direct way to speak to readers, and should be used sparingly.
Dashes are slightly quieter than parentheses. As with commas, they are used to offset inessential information. However, this “inessential information” is established to be just as—or even, at times, more—important than the rest of the sentence. To use a dash is to separate out details for a reader, giving them something to focus on in the brief reading pause created by our writing.
While it can seem a bit nitpicky, the pause does allow our readers to take breaks, and, more importantly, makes our writing more engaging. Plus it’s amusing to play around with.
(A side note on commas: Many English tutors will advise writers to place a comma wherever they would naturally pause while speaking. This, however, is unequivocally untrue. Some people pause more often than not and some don’t pause at all. Overall, this method leads to random commas, comma splices, and run-on sentences.)