When writing, you can most effectively use a dash to
A. get the reader's attention.
B. replace an exclamation point.
C. add a formal touch to a sentence.
D. replace a semicolon.
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C. To get the reader's attention.
If I want to draw the reader's attention to a phrase -- to throw it in their face, as it were -- I set it off with an em dash. Generally on a computer, you make it by typing two minus signs (-) next to each other. Some word processing programs (Word, for example) will automatically change the two minus signs into one long em dash.
If it's a phrase I don't have any strong feelings about emphasizing or de-emphasizing, perhaps because I just want the sentence to flow along, I set it off with commas.
If I want to de-emphasize a phrase (to make it seem almost like an afterthought) I enclose it in parentheses.