Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

The art of punctuation and the charm of 'kerfuffle.' Nicing.

Episode Summary

995. This week, we look at when to use parentheses, dashes, and commas and how the choice can change the tone of your writing. Then, we dive into the history of words for describing a big fuss — "kerfuffle," "hullabaloo," "hoopla," and more.

Episode Notes

995. This week, we look at when to use parentheses, dashes, and commas and how the choice can change the tone of your writing. Then, we dive into the history of words for describing a big fuss — "kerfuffle," "hullabaloo," "hoopla," and more.

The "big fuss" segment was written by Samantha Enslen, who runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. Today, I'm going to help you decide when to use parentheses, dashes, and commas; we'll talk about fun words like my very favorite word, "kerfuffle"; and we'll end with a familect about nicing.

Parentheses, dashes, and commas

by Mignon Fogarty

Have you ever been sitting at your computer writing, and suddenly you aren't sure whether you should use parentheses, commas, or dashes to set off some extra point or an aside? It happens to me because in a lot of cases these marks are interchangeable, at least grammatically. But they each do give your writing a different feeling. 

In general, you can think of parentheses, commas, and dashes as a continuum of punctuation marks. Parentheses are the quiet whisper of an aside, commas are the conversational voice of a friend walking by your desk, and dashes are the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray.


Let’s start with those quiet parentheses. You use them to surround something that seems a bit out of place in the sentence — an aside, a clarification, or a commentary. Sometimes when you go back to edit your first draft, you’ll find that you can rework your sentence to include the parenthetical statement or simply delete the part in parentheses unless it's something like an irreverent quip you're using to intentionally set a tone.

Here’s an example of one way to use parentheses to add additional information:

The Loma Prieta earthquake (October 17, 1989) happened during a national live broadcast of the World Series, making it an especially memorable event for people who were watching. 

The date (October 17, 1989) is in parentheses in that sentence. It’s something you want to tell the reader, but it isn’t a necessary part of the sentence. If you leave it out, the reader still gets the whole point you want to make about the earthquake being a big deal to people who were watching the big game. 

The date isn’t enough of a dramatic statement to merit dashes, and if you want to leave it in, another reason you might want to use parentheses is that the date already contains a comma between the day and the year, so to surround it with commas could make the sentence difficult to read. No excitement. Already has an internal comma. That leaves parentheses as the obvious choice. 

Parentheses are also often a sign that you could leave the material out. I mean, if it wasn't important enough to include in the main part, why do you need it? Is the date of the earthquake important enough to include? If so, you could rephrase the sentence to write: 

The Loma Prieta earthquake happened during a national live broadcast of the World Series on October 17, 1989, making it an especially memorable event (and so on).

Here’s one that’s a little different:

I’m heading out (movie night!), but I’ll call you in the morning.

“Movie night” is more of an aside or comment than a clarification. “Movie night” is so far removed from the flow of the sentence that you wouldn’t want to use commas around it. You could use dashes. It just doesn’t seem like enough of an interruption or a dramatic statement to me to merit dashes, but that's a judgment call. You could write the sentence a different way, of course, “I’m heading out for movie night, but I’ll call you in the morning,” but it doesn’t have the same friendly, happy feel. "Movie night!" is an informal aside, and parentheses seem like the best choice in that case. 

And you may have noticed that the examples I’ve given both have sentence fragments enclosed in parentheses, but you can also enclose whole clauses.


At the other end of the spectrum, we have dashes. If you want to hang a spotlight on your words, decorate them with dashes. You can use dashes the same way we just talked about using parentheses, to enclose fragments or whole sentences, but you’d better be sure your words are worthy of dashes. Dashes interrupt your sentence in a way that parentheses or commas don’t. Here’s an example:

They fled through the woods, and then George — dear, sweet George the accountant — jumped out from behind a tree and stabbed them.

It’s appropriate to interrupt that sentence with dashes to remind the reader that the attacker has unexpected qualities — that he’s dear, sweet George the accountant. It's shocking!

But this is English, so there’s an exception to the dashes-are-dramatic rule. You can also consider using dashes in a more mundane sentence when the part you need to set off already has commas or is especially long.

For example you might want to use dashes to set off the list of ingredients in this sentence since the list contains commas:

Squiggly is bringing all the ingredients for s'mores — chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers — but not anything else we'll need to make them.

And you might want to use dashes in this sentence because the aside is longer than the rest of the sentence:

S'mores — which get their name from smooshing together the words "some" and "more" — are Squiggly's favorite part of camping.

Just remember that when you use dashes instead of parentheses, you’re generally highlighting the information instead of simply noting it or providing it as background information.

Another difference between parentheses and dashes is that you always have to use two parentheses, they always enclose something, but it’s fine to use one dash alone to introduce an important or exciting statement, or a statement that already has commas in it. For example, you could write:

There was only one thing missing from the pirate ship — pirates.

That dash is appropriate because the announcement that the pirates are missing is probably important or dramatic. In a sentence like that, where something is defined or expanded, you’re choosing between the dash and a colon. You could just as properly write:

There was only one thing missing from the pirate ship: pirates.

That sentence just doesn’t have the same wild feeling as the sentence with the dash. A colon is a more stoic, buttoned up punctuation mark than a dash.

And as before, you can also use one dash to introduce a longer, pedestrian statement if the statement already has commas.


So let’s finish with commas. They’re kind of dull, which means you should always consider using them because punctuation usually shouldn’t be drawing attention to itself. There are a gazillion rules that govern how to use commas, so I’m going to limit this discussion to commas that could be used like parentheses or dashes.

Commas don’t interrupt your sentence, so you use them when the words you’re enclosing are a natural part of your sentence and not some flamboyant statement or comment from left field that isn't even a grammatical part of the sentence. Commas are generally used for appositives, for example, which are defining or clarifying statements after nouns. Here’s an example of an appositive set off with commas:

Squiggly's best friend, Aardvark, prefers fishing. 

“Aardvark” just tells you who Squiggly's best friend is. You could set his name off with dashes as we did in the earlier sentence about George the accountant, or with parentheses like we did with the date earlier, but there’s no reason to in a sentence as short and straightforward as this one.

Commas are also often used to set off nonrestrictive elements, such as “which” clauses:

Aardvark and Squiggly agree that driving to their favorite campground, which takes about six hours, is the worst part of camping. 

Like information enclosed in parentheses, the “which” clause about the 6-hour drive could be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning. I actually did a whole episode just about “which” versus “that” and commas, so you can read if you’d like to learn more.


And I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, you could make a legitimate argument for using at least two different punctuation marks in nearly every example sentence I’ve given you, but these general rules may be helpful:

I know it can be frustrating that there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about when to use commas, parentheses, or dashes, but learning to use your judgment is part of finding your voice and becoming a better writer. In this case, the rules are more like the pirates’ code in "Pirates of the Caribbean" — they’re more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. I bet Jack Sparrow never used a comma; he seems like a dash type of guy to me.

A big to-do

by Samantha Enslen

Here’s a question for you: Why does English have so many words meaning “a great big fuss”?

We have "ruckus," "rumpus," and "row." There’s "bother," "bluster," and "bustle." "Tumult," "to-do," and "ballyhoo." And those are just a few.

The overall reason we have so many words is because English is a mutt of a language! Our vocabulary is an eclectic mix of words gathered from German, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Arabic, and more. 

The other answer is that … maybe we’re a little dramatic! When we get upset, we like to vent. And we simply have a lot of ways to do that. 

Just for fun, here are a few of the silliest-sounding words we have to mean “a big mess.”


First, there’s "kerfuffle."

This appeared in 1946, when author Frank Sargeson included it in a collection of short stories. But the first part of the word — "ker" — appeared a good hundred years earlier. It’s an onomatopoetic form that imitates the sound of a heavy fall. We see it in other words like "kerplop," "kerplunk," and "kerthump."

Here, it’s paired with “fuffle,” a Scottish verb meaning to become disheveled or mussed up.

So a “kerfuffle” is like a giant banging mess.


Next, we’ve got “hullabaloo.” 

This one can be traced back to the 1700s, when it showed up as “hollowballoo,” “halloobaloo,” and sometimes “halloo-bo-loo.”

The history of this one is a little mysterious. It seems to have come from the interjection “halloo” — as in, “hello” — transformed with rhyming reduplication into “halloo-balloo.” 

What’s reduplication? It’s an English linguistic phenomenon when we randomly repeat a word — creating, for example, "bye-bye," "goody-goody," or "night-night." It’s also when we add a second word that sounds very similar to the first, as in "teeny-weeny" or "hanky-panky."

"Hullaballoo" is one of these, along with a few other words meaning “a big fuss,” like "hubble-bubble," "hurry-skurry," "helter-skelter." 


Another example of reduplication is “hubbub.” This one goes all the way back to the 1500s. It’s related to a similar word, “hubbaboo.” 

Both seem to be derived from the Gaelic word “ubub,” an expression of aversion or contempt — or from the ancient Irish war cry “abu.” Or maybe, from both!


Next, let’s quickly hit on pandemonium. We think of this as meaning the biggest  of all: utter confusion, an uproar. But its first use had a slightly more sinister meaning: the abode of all demons. John Milton wrote about it in his epic poem "Paradise Lost," calling pandemonium the “citie and proud seate of Lucifer.” 

That makes sense when you dissect the word. It’s formed from “pan-,” a prefix meaning “all”; “demon,” meaning, well, demons; and “-ium,” a suffix used to denote a place or environment, as in "stadium" or "auditorium." 

Thus "pan-demon-ium" means “the place of all demons.”


Moving on, we’ve got "hoopla"! 

This one comes from the French interjection “houp-lá,” which is used in the same way we might say “upsy-daisy” when picking up a child, or “whoops-a-daisy” if they fall down. 

The word was borrowed into English in the late 1800s, and as it moved, its meaning shifted. It became an exclamation you might cry out after any quick or sudden movement. Then it shifted again, to mean any big commotion or ballyhoo. 

Hoo-ha, hurly-burly, pother, and rumpus

Finally, there are a few words meaning “a big fuss” that seem to have just appeared; we don’t know where they came from. “Hurly-burly,” another reduplicative, showed up in the 1400s. “Pother” popped up in the 1600s. “Rumpus” was revealed in the 1700s. And “hoo-ha” hit the pavement in the 1930s, appearing in the English illustrated periodical “Punch.”  

In short, we seem to have an endless number of words to mean turmoil, commotion, and a big old mess. Let’s hope that over time, English comes up with an equal number of words that mean resolution and calm. Surely, we can all use that too.

That segment was written by Samantha Enslen, who runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at


Finally, I have a familect story from Damien.

Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Damien Bassman from New York City. So this is my familect. As the offspring of a flower child, our family had a lot of familects. But the story of how I discovered this word was in fact a familect and not universal makes this one my favorite. When my sister and I were little and we'd get upset about something, my mom would have us sit next to her on her lap, and she would gently pat and rub her back or caress her arms until we had calmed down and felt better. And because this felt so nice, we called this "nicing." So when we were upset about a toy getting broken or somebody picking on us, we'd ask, "Mommy, can you nice me, please?" And it would help us feel better and get over whatever was bothering us. Fast forward to my freshman year of college and my then-girlfriend was really upset about something that happened in class. So naturally I wanted to console her, and I said, "Hey, come over here and let me nice you." She looked at me like I was totally crazy, and I said, "You're so upset. Don't you want me to nice you?" So she dubiously shifted towards me whereupon I rubbed her back and gently pat her arms until she felt better. And that is when I discovered that "nicing" was in fact just a word my mom had made up. But it's such a useful word. My sister and I both use it now with our families and our kids use it all the time. Thanks so much, Grammar Girl. I'm a longtime fan of your show. Bye. So I just lost a space but I also wanted to say it was so fun to call a voicemail hotline. It felt like when I was a little kid and I would call up to check the weather or the time or something. Anyway, thank you. Bye. 

Haha, thanks so much, Damien. I love the nicing story, and I know just what you mean about calling a voicemail line. I used to call the weather and time line when I was a kid too. And my online friend Ernie Smith, who runs the Tedium blog, had a piece I read recently about a few interesting voicemail lines you can still call, and I was super excited to call the one that just reads out phonetically balanced sentences, called the "Harvard sentences." Supposedly, the recordings were used by cell phone companies to test the signal quality of phones. But it's an old article and when I called the number, it didn't work anymore. I was so disappointed, but I'll put a link in the show notes to that article if anyone wants to check it out and read more about the Harvard sentences or the other voicemail lines he featured. 

And if you want to recapture that old-school thrill of calling a voicemail line, call and leave me a story about your familect. The number is 83-321-4-GIRL. 

And of course, Grammarpalooza subscribers can also send a voice memo, which is more convenient, but apparently also not as much fun! Still, I send text messages with fun facts a couple of times a week too, so I hope that makes up for it. Being a Grammarpalooza subscribe is a great way to directly support the show if you can, and the first two weeks are free so you can try it out to see if you like it. To sign up, visit or text "hello" to (917) 540-0876.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to Morgan Christianson in advertising; Nathan Semes in audio; Brannan Goetschius, director of podcasts; Holly Hutchings in digital operations; and Davina Tomlin in marketing, who is going to a circus acrobatics show this weekend.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. Remember to look for "Grammar Girl Conversations" in your feed. This Thursday, I have an interview with Dr. Sonja Lanehart who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona and member of the advisory board for the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, and we're going to talk about the fascinating challenges of putting together a new dictionary, and some of the great first entries the team has completed so far.

That's all. Thanks for listening.