"Tricky customer, eh? Not to worry, we'll find the perfect match here somewhere –– I wonder, now –– yes, why not –– unusual combination –– holly and phoenix feather, eleven inches, nice and supple." (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

There are dashes and commas mingled, so it’s very hard how to read by meaningful units. When the two punctuations are mixed, which has priority in grouping the units?

1 Answer 1


Dashes are a higher unit than commas.

Generally, the sequence goes like this:

  • paragraphs (paragraph break)
  • sentences (full stop, question mark, exclamation mark, ellipsis)
  • interjections (dash)
  • clauses, phrases (colon, semicolon)
  • listed elements (comma)

Note dash introduces an interruption of the natural flow. All the others connect: the following part is related to the previous one or at least follows it smoothly - there was a closure. Dashes allow you to interrupt the flow; introduce a clause that doesn't follow the previous one grammatically, or semantically. They inject an exception into the structure. Yes, they make reading harder - that's because the previous thought is interrupted. Unlike ellipsis, which allows the thought to trail off without finishing it, fade, dashes are a rapid abort.

  • Not always an "abort," though. I'd say it's more like an interruption, particularly when a subsequent dash brings you back to the original thought. I asked my niece which flavor ice cream she wanted – her parents take her out for ice cream every Sunday – she told me vanilla and strawberry.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 17:37
  • 1
    Of course it can be used for different purposes, and it often can be used in place of comma, ellipsis or semicolon introducing merely a slightly different impression of the nature of the pause. Still, it can be used in places where none of the above can be used – disrupting the flow. Actually, it can be used pretty much anywhe– oops, my 'r' key broke! ;)
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 19:32
  • 1
    In the case of the O.P.'s quote – and I had meant to say this in my original comment – the dashes are simply being used to indicate an apparent disjointed flow of mumbled comments by the wand vendor.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 19:47

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