Is it a struggle for you knowing how to punctuate dialogue? How to punctuate dialogue correctly eludes a lot of writers. Yet once you know the rules, it is straightforward.
Quotation marks, speech marks and quotes
Quotation marks are also referred to as ‘speech marks’ or ‘quotes’. I’ll use the term ‘quotation marks’ here so as not to confuse it with the other meanings of ‘quote’.
Quotation marks are either single – ‘ or double – “
In Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, it seems more common for writers to use single quotation marks for dialogue, while in the United States, double quotation marks are more common. Either is correct – consistency is the key.
Opening and closing quotation marks
When you use quotation marks in dialogue, you use opening quotation marks – ‘ – to begin the dialogue, and closing quotation marks – ’ – to end the dialogue.
Do you always need to use quotation marks in dialogue?
The English language is very flexible and readers are not too fussed about whether you do or don’t use quotation marks in dialogue. However, most writers do, because it clearly separates narrative from dialogue. So if you don’t use quotation marks, then you need to make clear to the reader in some other way when you are switching between dialogue and narrative.
Comma to introduce speech
When you have a dialogue tag – she said/he said or similar – introducing a character’s speech, you need a comma before the opening quotation marks.
Jenna asked, ‘Can I go to the movies with you tonight?’
Comma after speech and before dialogue tag
When the dialogue finishes and you are using a dialogue tag – he said/she said or similar – as long as the dialogue doesn’t end in a question mark or an exclamation mark, you use a comma before the end quotation marks.
‘I’m going to the movies with you tonight,’ Jenna said.
‘Can I go to the movies with you tonight?’ she asked.
‘I’m not going to the movies with you tonight!’ she said.
In the above two sentences, you only use a question mark or an exclamation mark, not a comma as well.
You’ll note that the first word of the dialogue tag – she – needs to be in lower case (small letters), as the sentence is not considered finished until after the dialogue tag.
However, sometimes a separate sentence follows the dialogue, as in the example below, so that sentence needs to begin with a capital letter:
‘I’m going to the movies with you tonight.’ It was clear that Jenna was not going to take no for an answer.
Punctuation falls inside closing quotation marks
Just keep in mind that before using closing quotation marks, you need to finish punctuating the sentence – with a comma, a full stop, an exclamation mark, or a question mark – just as you’d do if the sentence had no speech.
I looked at James and said, ‘Your glasses really suit you.’
Here, you can see that the full stop comes before the closing quotation marks.
‘Can you send me that file today please?’
The question mark comes before the closing quotation marks.
‘How dare you!’
The exclamation mark comes before the closing quotation marks.
More than one person or character speaking
When two or more characters are speaking, make sure you have a paragraph break for each new speaker. This makes it clear to your readers which character is speaking.
Quoted text within quotation marks
When a character is quoting another character or person, put the words they are quoting within double quotation marks nested inside the character’s speech.
Jenna said, ‘Mum always used to say to me, “Be careful who you associate with”, and I’ve always taken notice of that.’
Note that the closing quotation marks of the quoted speech go before the comma.
Dialogue plus dialogue tag plus dialogue
When you have your character begin a sentence, then interrupt their speech with a dialogue tag, then resume their speech after the dialogue tag, this is how to punctuate the sentence correctly.
‘Your glasses really suit you,’ I said to James, ‘so I think you should wear them more often.’
You could also break it down into two sentences separated by a full stop:
‘Your glasses really suit you,’ I said to James. ‘You should wear them more often.’
Dialogue interrupted by an action or a thought
‘Your glasses really suit you’ – actually, I couldn’t take my eyes off him so I was just stalling so he’d keep talking with me – ‘and I think you should wear them more often.’
‘Your glasses really suit you’ – Penny walked past and threw him a come-hither look – ‘so I think you should wear them more often.’
Multiple paragraphs of dialogue by the same speaker
Characters sometimes have a lot to say for themselves! While it’s wise not to tax the reader’s patience by frequently having characters talk for several paragraphs, when their speech is longer than, say, five or six lines, it’s a good idea to break it into two paragraphs. The rule is to use an opening quotation mark in the second paragraph to indicate the same character is still speaking, and to end the quotation marks after the paragraph in which the character finishes speaking.
‘I want to see you every day of my life from now until forever and I hope you feel the same way. Do you know when I first fell in love with you? It was that day at the market when that little kid fell down the steps and you rushed to help him up.
‘There was so much tenderness in your eyes, it was all I could do to stop myself from proposing to you then and there. You have the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known.’
Anything else you’d like to know about punctuating dialogue?
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