Punctuation of dialog and quotations is a tricky thing. Do I use a comma here? A period? Should it go inside the quotation marks, or outside?
I’ll start out by saying that I had thought the punctuation rules were different for people writing UK English. I asked my South African (now American) friend Cori to help me with this lesson, and after every numbered rule, she has commented in red, with her own examples when needed.
1. End punctuation generally goes inside quotation marks.
My dad was fond of saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Jan heard a knock on her office door. “Who’s there?”
When Ben turned on the lights, a dozen people yelled, “Surprise!”
This is the same for us Brits!
This is the rule that I had thought was the most often different for UK writers, so I asked Cori for clarification. Here’s our correspondence:
>I thought the period (in UK English) would go outside the quote marks in a sentence like this:
> Jan said, "Cori, you still haven't told me how I can pay you".
>That is a gray area. Some British publications say yes, others say no.
So—if you’re writing for a UK publication, check their style in works they’ve already published, and place the full stop inside or outside the quote marks according to their preference.
2. If you’re quoting a question, do it this way:
What group sang “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”
Notice that only one question mark is used, even though there are really two questions here.
What group sang “Help Me, Rhonda”?
The question mark is on the outside, as the quoted material is not a question.
The Monotones sang “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”
The sentence is declarative, but the quoted section is a question. The stronger punctuation wins.
Although I deplore the song Jan used, the dialogue is the same for those of us who hail from the better side of the pond!
3. If a sentence ends in a bit of dialog, use a comma to separate the first part of the sentence from the dialog.
As she brushed her granddaughter’s hair, Jan said, “Piper, you’re being a very good girl.”
I’m partial to Piper, but I love Jan even more, because she knows how to write dialogue using the Queen’s own rules.
4. If a sentence begins with dialog, use a comma to separate it from the last part of the sentence IF that last part cannot stand alone.
“I’m trying to be good, Grandma,” said Piper, grinning mischievously.
Another universal rule.
5. If a sentence begins with dialog, use end punctuation (usually a period, sometimes a question mark or exclamation point) if what follows can stand alone as its own sentence.
“I can’t find my cell phone.” Jan tossed the couch cushions aside, frantically searching.
“Perhaps Piper took it?” Cori helped Jan move the couch.
This rule applies wherever good English is written!
Take another look at #4 and #5 above, as these are the types of sentences that I most often see punctuated incorrectly. The dialog tag of #4 uses ‘said,’ and that’s another signal that a comma is the correct inner punctuation. That would be true, too, for any word that is a synonym of ‘said’—responded, shrieked, mumbled, whispered—any of those words that indicate vocalization.
But in #5, the verb that follows the dialog is tossed—not a ‘said’-type word—so the dialog takes a period, as does the sentence that follows.
6. When dialog is interrupted by a speech tag, use commas (usually).
“Hey, Ben,” said Jan, “let’s go out to eat this evening.”
Notice, too, that let’s was uncapitalized, as it was a continuation of the interrupted sentence.
However, take a look at this variation, and the placement of the period after refrigerator.
“Hey, Ben,” said Jan, peering into the empty refrigerator. “Let’s go out to eat this evening.”
“What a great idea,” said Ben. “Where do you want to go?”
The rule is the same.
I’d also like to mention that there are lots and lots of ways to write dialog and dialog tags, and all of them are correct, but some are more appropriate for certain types of writing than others. I recommend that you work on mixing them up in your writing.
a. Jan said, “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater.”
Not used as often as tags at the end of sentences, except in children’s books.
b. Said Jan, “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater.”
This one is awkward and contrived, and sounds dated. Use it in poetry, or children’s books, or writing with a historic flair.
c. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater,” said Jan.
d. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater,” Jan said.
e. “I can’t believe,” said Jan, “that you’re wearing that purple sweater.”
This one is good to use if you want to build a little bit of tension—either to emphasize the first half or the second half of the sentence. Just be sure that you interrupt it at a logical point.
f. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater.” Jan shook her head in wonder.
Action tags like this can be used to develop characterization, or to move the plot along. However, don't make your character perform a meaningless action, just to avoid writing she said.
I can't believe you're wearing that purple sweater." Jan put her coffee cup on the table. The action of putting the cup on the table doesn't advance the plot, nor does it tell me anything significant about Jan.
g. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater.”
“What? My mother gave me this sweater.”
It’s not necessary to tag your dialog at all, if it’s apparent to the reader who is talking. Writing tagless dialog will make your piece more fast-paced; just be sure to toss a tag in there every so often to remind your reader who is speaking.
h. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater,” Jan scoffed.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater,” Jan said mockingly.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater,” Jan scoffed mockingly.
I recommend that you keep your synonyms for ‘said’ to a minimum. Readers tend to skip over those words and to pay more attention to the actual dialog, so make every word between the quotation marks count, or use an action tag (example f) to make your speaker’s emotion clear. If you must use a non-said word, do it like the first or second example above; scoffed mockingly is redundant and clunky.
And that’s plenty for this lesson! Thanks, Cori!
Write 150 words or so, including some dialog. Check that it’s correctly punctuated, and choose a dialog style that works for your characters and their situation. No more than 150 words, please.
If you’re from Canada, England, or Australia, can you add to our understanding of how dialogue is punctuated differently there?
Ask me a question—I’m sure I didn’t cover every situation.
As always, I welcome ideas for future lessons.