Most sentences begin and end with no punctuation other than the period at the end. Sometimes, a comma is used. There are occasions, such as when more than one thought is expressed, that a pair of commas are needed. That is often all the punctuation used by an attorney writing an appellate brief. But what of the dash — punctuation that can add flare and style to your brief if used correctly.  The dash can be used to emphasize a portion of a sentence by highlighting it through setting it apart.

In his classic book on writing nonfiction, “On Writing Well,” William Zinzer sings the praises of the often forgotten and neglected dash mark.

Somehow this invaluable tool is widely regarded as not quite proper — a bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English. But it has full membership and will get you out of many tight corners.  …. [T]two dashes [can be used to] … set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car — she had been after me all summer to have a haircut — and we drove silently into town.” An explanatory detail that might otherwise have required a seperate sentence is neatly dispatched along the way.


dash (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

Likewise, in his book “Point Made: How to Write like the Nation’s Top Advocates,” legal writing guru Ross Guberman notes that dashes can be used to “add emphasis and vary the prose.” He explains that two dashes can be used to “emphasize something in the middle of your sentence.” Guberman provide the following example from a brief that Chief Justice John Roberts wrote while still practicing law:

Described as an “experiment in federalism,” the Clean Water Act assigns to the States an important — indeed primary — role in air pollution prevention and control.


(Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

To get the point across even further, the following are some example of the use of a pair of dashes to set out and draw the reader’s attention to important points within a long sentence:

  • This injunctive relief includes a substantial reformation of the class members’ contracts with Wayne’s which makes it strictly liable to repair all termite damage — old or new — which is located in a two-year period, regardless of whether the actual terms of the class members’ contract require repair of such damage.
  • The determination of the nature of the damages awarded — and thus whether there is insurance coverage for the damages award — would be more efficiently and fairly performed as a part of a single phase trial by the jury deciding the exact type of damages to be awarded as a part of the jury verdict.
  • The combination of such facts — making slanderous per se statements about Cottrell to many people, including media persons, without knowing whether they were true or false — is evidence of reckless disregard by Culpepper for whether the statements were true or false.
  • Assuming for the sake of argument that there was a public controversy, the NCAA’s defamatory statements — that the Plaintiffs received the extreme punishment of a “show cause” order — did relate to the controversy.
  • CSA and these entities attempt to transform this appeal — arising from the district court’s ruling based on a very specific set of facts in the record on appeal — into one in which this Court would rule based upon a broad hypothetical fact situation and provide a broad precedential ruling that CSA cannot ever be found to be a credit repair organization.
  • The fraud in the factum here — whether Picard was knowingly led to take such actions that created an electronic signature — is of the same kind as those types of challenges to the validity of a contract that the Supreme Court held in Buckeye were to be decided by a court.

I hope this discussion and these examples show how the use of a pair of dashes can be used to effectively set off, and thus bring attention to, a statement made within the middle of a lengthy sentence. It’s a technique that can be useful in writing an appellate brief, where lengthy and complex sentences are not uncommon.