Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to Punctuate Dialogue

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For many authors punctuation is difficult even without using ellipses, colons and semicolons. Why, even the simple apostrophe is peculiar all by itself. And when you start tossing dialogue around, well, punctuation can get well into scary.

Let’s consider the purpose punctuation serves, shall we? I once heard that all those interesting symbols are the traffic signs of the writer’s world. Interesting analogy, I think. However, in real life, punctuation serves to clarify your writing, improve the rhythm of the written word, defines the structure of within writing and identifies what is being said, as with quotation marks.

To be honest, I’ve looked at this computer screen for an hour or so and still have no idea of how to tell you to use punctuation in dialogue. In lieu of a series of definitions, I’m going to employ a series of examples.

Let’s first examine a typical spoken comment.

A. “Do you see Mary running?”

The punctuation of this is simple enough. Quotation marks belong at each end of the spoken words. Other punctuation, in this case the question mark, is enclosed by the quote marks.

Our second example is the classic “said” sentence.

B. John said, “See Mary run.”

If a tagline begins the sentence, a comma and then a space are inserted immediately after the tagline. The quotation marks are placed around the spoken words. The first letter of the spoken words is always capitalized and the trailing punctuation, in this case a period, is placed inside the quotes. Enter a space for the next sentence as usual.

(See how simple this is?)

The next example shows the same sentence with the tag at the end.

C. “See Mary run,” said John.

The quotation ends with a comma, which is bracketed within the quotes. (As the quote is not the end of the sentence, a comma replaces the period found in the prior illustration.) This is followed by a space and then the speech tagline and your period. As always, the first letter in the spoken words is capitalized.

Let’s now use punctuation in a more complex dialogue environment.

D. John said, “See Mary run,” then he walked to the door.

You can see the same rules incorporated in the first two examples are in play here. The sentence starts with a tagline, which is followed by a comma and a space. Next, open quotes and a capital letter begin the verbalization. A comma is inserted at the end of the spoken words, which is then followed by the close quotes, a space and the rest of the sentence. Note: if the first word after a quote is a proper noun, it is capitalized as with normal punctuation.

We’ll now look at the same type of sentence, but with the tagline in the center.

E. “Hello, everyone,” John said, “we hope you’re having a good morning.”

Getting trickier now, isn’t it? Here we have a situation where quotes begin and end a sentence. Not to worry, the same rules already discussed will apply.

You start the sentence with your opening quotation marks and a capital letter. You end the first quote with a comma and your close quotes, then a space. Next, you add your tagline, which if followed by a comma and another space. This tagline is capitalized only because it begins with a proper noun. Your second quote begins with another opening quote and a lowercase letter. (Unless the second quote begins with a proper noun which would be capitalized.) At the end of the sentence, you close with a period and your close quote. Add one last space and you’re ready for the next sentence.


Now let’s evaluate a quote that requires something other than a period or a comma.

F. “I feel so excited!” said Mary.

G. “Are you enjoying yourself?” asked John.

In these cases, where a comma or period does not adequately punctuate the quoted words, you might wish to finish your quotation with a question mark or exclamation point. The secret, as noted above, is to enclose this punctuation within the closing quotation mark. In effect, it replaces the comma we’ve already seen. These spoken words are followed by the close quote, a space and the tag. Don’t forget the entire sentence still ends with a period and your tagline begins with a lowercase letter, assuming it is not a proper noun.

We’ve discussed the spoken word, how then does one handle thought instead of the spoken word?

H. John wondered, Is she enjoying herself?

I. Is she enjoying herself? John wondered.

J. John thought, She is enjoying herself!

In the case where someone is thinking instead of speaking, all the same punctuation rules apply, except you omit the formal quotation marks. Today, some writers italicize the thought, whereas other writers do not. I prefer the italics. You’ll see examples of both options listed. In examples “H” and “J”, you’ll note John’s actual thought begins with a capital letter, as it would if they were spoken words inside quotation marks.

*Take deep breath here.*

Now, for a few other quick tips on how to punctuate the spoken word.

Every time the speaker changes, the paragraph changes.

“Are you having fun?” John asked.

“Oh, yes. A great deal,” Mary said.

John said, “I’m so glad.”

Insure the speaker is obvious to the reader. Taglines are one way to identify your speaker, though they are not necessary with every line of dialogue.

In the following paragraphs, the reader has no idea if it is John or Mary speaking.

“Are you having fun?”

“Oh, yes. A great deal.”

“I’m so glad.”

Taglines after every quote will have a dulling effect on your writing, so you may identify speakers in other ways, too.

Here are some elementary examples.

“Are you having fun?” John turned toward her to ask the question.

“Oh, yes. A great deal.” Mary was uncomfortable with his continued, overt attention.

“I’m so glad.” John felt himself relax when she answered in the positive.

This dialogue is stilted, I know, but it shows taglines are not necessary to identify who is speaking.

The tagline, “said”, also needs careful attention for it is devoid of emotion and can make your dialogue sound wooden and uninteresting.

In the same vein, other verbs often used as tags can be overused. Verbs such as, “shouted,” or “chuckled,” or “sneered” should be judiciously employed. Replace them with sentences as shown in the prior example.

Be creative in so far as placement of your speech taglines.

Though you should use them with care, you may feel free to insert them in various places within your sentences. As outlined above, they can come at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle or at the end.

As your writing improves, you’ll use fewer taglines.

That is to say your writing will exhibit emotion without the need for them. This is often done with preceding or following sentences. An example follows.

“Sure, John, I can see you Friday night.” By the time Mary hung up, she already knew she had the perfect dress for the occasion.

*Exhale here.*

I hope I’ve covered the major aspects of punctuating dialogue for you. If you have specific questions, drop a comment in the box and I’ll be glad to see if I can’t help.

In the mean time, my all your books be best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze


  1. What is the correct way to handle this construct?

    Perhaps he was upset because they called out "Lunatic!"?


    Perhaps he was upset because they called out "Lunatic?"


    Perhaps he was upset because they called out "Lunatic."?


    Perhaps he was upset because they called out lunatic?

    I have this construction in one of my poems and I have no idea how to punctuate it.

    "Help!" she cried.

  2. Good question, Michele. Though poetry seems to run by its own rules, I would punctuate the sentence as follows:

    Perhaps they were upset because they called out, "Lunatic?"

    A comma needs insertion before the word, "Lunatic."

    n punctuation mark always goes inside the quotes, thus eliminating options 1 and 3.

    The word, "Lunitic" is a quote, so it belongs bracketed by quotation marks. That leave option 2, though a comma is needed before a quote.

    Hope this helps.

    C. Patrick Schulze

  3. Thanks for answering me - I'm very grateful you took the time to reply.

    While technically correct - doesn't it give the impression that the people calling are calling out a question?

    I'm trying to ask a question about the people calling out a definite accusatory jibe - they aren't questioning at all.

    It is a tricky one.

    I wonder if I can fall back on poetry running by its own rules and put the question mark outside as a deliberate rule break?

    It just makes logical sense out there - I am a mathematician and it makes mathematical sense there too.

    You can see why I had a headache over this though?

    But as long as I *know* what's correct - then I don't mind breaking rules - I just hate breaking them in ignorance - there's no fun in that :)

  4. Hey, Michele,

    I understand your delima. Although there is a technically correct answer, it just ain't right.

    Although I offered what I thought was the "correct" answer, the results do not call to you. My advice in that case? Trust your intuition.

    A major goal of punctuation is to make one's writing read as the author intended, and in this case the correct answer perferts your meaning, it loses your message. Punctuate it to fit what you are trying to say and sleep well at tonight.

    I'm glad you have the insight to stay true to your poetry.

    C. Patrick Schulze