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For example, you have a sentence like this:

But let’s pluck a word at random from the vocabulary tree: lambaste. Let’s say whenever you encounter this word, the first four letters, l-a-m-b, throw you off. You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition — to reprimand harshly — it always surprises you. You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition — to reprimand harshly — it always surprises you.

In this sentence, I would have used parentheses:

You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition (to reprimand harshly) it always surprises you.

Or I would have used commas (as told by the book 'Elements of style'):

You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition, to reprimand harshly, it always surprises you.

I am giving an international exam soon in which they are going to be stringent about such things.

Could you tell me when to use which one?

Edit: Since the fragmented part was confusing, I have now included the whole paragraph.

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    I am not quite sure what the fragment even means. Is the "to reprimand harshly" part the definition? Then it must be in quotes. The choice between dashes, commas and parentheses, on the other hand, does not matter. As an aside, if you are facing a stringent exam, the very first thing you should do is throw away the Elements of Style. "Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense." – RegDwigнt Nov 1 '14 at 21:20
  • I would definitely avoid the comma case, as that seems to imply that the writer is reprimanding you. – Joe Z. Nov 1 '14 at 22:08
  • Have you copied the sentence correctly? I don't understand what definition has to do with animals kept in a pen. What was the previous sentence? – Mari-Lou A Nov 2 '14 at 8:21
  • I have updated the question to include the whole paragraph. My apologies for including only a fragment at first. Would you say now, that all three can be used interchangeably in this context? – learnerX Nov 2 '14 at 13:04
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You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition — to reprimand harshly — it always surprises you.

The use of dashes here is confusing. It implies that "to reprimand harshly" describes the definition. The following has the same literal meaning:

You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition (to reprimand harshly) it always surprises you.

Unless I am missing something, this sentence doesn't make any sense, because "to reprimand harshly" cannot describe a definition. I'd suggest the same as what RegDwigнt suggested:

You picture a docile creature bah-ing contentedly in a pen. When you see the definition "to reprimand harshly", it always surprises you.

Now we are saying that "to reprimand harshly" is something which can be described as a definition, which seems to make more sense, although I'm still struggling to understand what this actually means.

As for dashes vs. parentheses vs commas; they have, to my knowledge, identical meaning (in this particular context). All 3 represent a rephrasing or explanation of the previous word or phrase, and in this example all appear poor choices, because they redefine or extend the word "definition", which doesn't seem to make any sense.

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  • I have updated the question to include the whole paragraph. My apologies for including only a fragment at first. Would you say now, that all three can be used interchangeably in this context? – learnerX Nov 2 '14 at 13:03
  • Ah, well that changes things! In this case I would agree that the use of dashes and parentheses are valid, but the use of quotes seems incorrect. – quant Nov 2 '14 at 20:55
  • "To reprimand harshly" is a description of what definition is. I usually place phrases in quotation marks after a word when I am elaborating, not rephrasing. E.g. Mary - the mother - said "let's go!". In contrast, if I said Mary "the mother", said "let's go!", this would be implying sarcasm. I'm afraid the technicalities of what's right and wrong here are a bit out of my league though, I can just tell you what feels right to me. – quant Nov 2 '14 at 20:59
  • @intellikid for completeness, Mary "the mother", said "let's go!" could also, in addition to sarcastically referring to her as a parent, suggest that she is known as "the mother". For example, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik might be a gangster's name and his nickname (in quotation marks). – quant Nov 3 '14 at 21:12

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