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Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 09, 2013 6:47 am

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".

> No?

>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!

HOMEWORK:

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.
OR
If you’re from Canada, England, or Australia, can you add to our understanding of how dialogue is punctuated differently there?
OR
Ask me a question—I’m sure I didn’t cover every situation.
As always, I welcome ideas for future lessons.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby Come forth » Mon Sep 09, 2013 6:33 pm

Wow, this is a great lesson.

I'm in a hurry to head off so will return later; just wanted to say thanks Jan.

Blessings; Graham
May we all get eyes to see and ears to hear,
A Revelation of His Word, crystal clear.
Admitting our need to be drawn in,
Less of self, more of Him.

My prayer for us all.
God bless us with the Revelation of His Word, Graham
http://www.shekinahcloud.com/page/page/8464330.htm

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 09, 2013 6:46 pm

Come forth wrote:Wow, this is a great lesson.

I'm in a hurry to head off so will return later; just wanted to say thanks Jan.

Blessings; Graham


(Awesome semicolon, Graham.) :D
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby Mike Newman » Mon Sep 09, 2013 8:01 pm

This is very helpful, thank you for this Jan.

I have a question about dialogue tags since you got me thinking about them. Can I, if I so choose, use she said after a question instead of she asked (or some such variant)?

I can't remember why but when writing recently I wanted to and didn't know if that would stand out as weird to the reader or not.

Thanks again for all your lessons Jan,

Mike

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 09, 2013 8:34 pm

Mike, there's no rule about that--it's entirely the writer's choice. I've read more than once that most readers really don't even read dialogue tags, which is why it's usually not necessary to use any of those substitutes for 'said.' So using 'said' instead of 'asked' would be perfectly fine. After all, when a person speaks--whether he is asking a question or not--he is still saying something.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 10, 2013 9:39 am

I'm bumping this lesson up, since it appears to be getting very little traffic. Perhaps punctuation doesn't grab the interest of most Faithwriters--that's fine; punctuation is boring (unless you're a grammar nerd, as I am).

I'm still compiling a list of possible topics for this column, though, and I welcome your suggestions.

And of course, I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have about dialogue--writing it, punctuating it, or anything else.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby Come forth » Wed Sep 11, 2013 12:25 am

Hey; I'm back.

1. End punctuation, as I understood it, was dependent upon the context. If speech, the period etc goes inside the quotation marks. If quoting from a book and the quoted section ends with an appropriate punctuation, then again the quotation marks go outside. BUT, if I only quote in part and an appropriate punctuation is not included, then a period or whatever would go outside. Two examples of what I am talking about:

a) The book that I am talking about stated, "...a period is always used when...".

b) Do we have to agree with Jim when he says, "Everything goes."?

Is this right or am I up my old tree again?

4. ; please, please; or at least a--, Okay, I'm learning.

5. I think this is easy to sort out, hoping I actually have sorted it out, because of the continued verses new sentence.

I think there is really a hidden lesson in this which has little to do with punctuation -- good dialog which is not bogged down with said, replied, etc.

Here's my homework:

"Hey you!" John screamed as loud as he could.

Ben spun around at the shout. "What! What's going on?"

"That wire next to your feet is live."

"Whew! Man, I didn't know that. Thanks." The blood drained from Ben's face as he looked at the wire -- which was mere inches from his left foot.

"We need to cut the supply to that sucker," John declared, "before someone else comes in."

"I'm with you." Ben nodded agreement. "How about you stand watch and I'll go throw the switch."

Thanks heaps; Graham.
May we all get eyes to see and ears to hear,
A Revelation of His Word, crystal clear.
Admitting our need to be drawn in,
Less of self, more of Him.

My prayer for us all.
God bless us with the Revelation of His Word, Graham
http://www.shekinahcloud.com/page/page/8464330.htm

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 11, 2013 9:24 am

Come forth wrote:
b) Do we have to agree with Jim when he says, "Everything goes."?


In US punctuation, two punctuation marks are never used. In this case, the question mark being the stronger mark, that is the one that would 'win.' I believe the way you've written it would be perfectly fine in the UK.

Come forth wrote:4. ; please, please; or at least a--, Okay, I'm learning.


I'm not really sure what you mean here, but if you're saying that you'd like to use a semicolon in my example #4, I'm going to have to disappoint you.

Come forth wrote:I think there is really a hidden lesson in this which has little to do with punctuation -- good dialog which is not bogged down with said, replied, etc.


Yes!

Come forth wrote:Here's my homework:

"Hey you!" John screamed as loud as he could.

Ben spun around at the shout. "What! What's going on?"

"That wire next to your feet is live."

"Whew! Man, I didn't know that. Thanks." The blood drained from Ben's face as he looked at the wire -- which was mere inches from his left foot.

"We need to cut the supply to that sucker," John declared, "before someone else comes in."

"I'm with you." Ben nodded agreement. "How about you stand watch and I'll go throw the switch."


I don't have any problems with the punctuation that you've used in this passage...

Come forth wrote:Thanks heaps; Graham.


...but I sure hope that semicolon was a joke. :lol:
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby amilli » Wed Sep 11, 2013 5:04 pm

I needed this lesson....but I have a quick question, in #6 why is there a comma between Hey & Ben? what's wrong with just saying "Hey Ben!"

My Home work:

"Will the congregation please rise," boomed the Pastor as he raised his hands.

Standing in the middle pew was Mary-Ann and Frank with big smiles on their faces. They had a testimony, and was bursting with joy.

Mary-Ann whispered, "I can't wait to share our blessing with the rest of the church." Turning to Frank she asked, "are you coming with me?"

"You know how nervous I get."

"But God blessed you too baby," cooed Mary-Ann.

"Was the extra pair of pants still in the car?"

"Why?"

"Cuz ammo need it when I pee in these pair!" said Frank laughing.
Amelia

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 11, 2013 5:13 pm

amilli wrote:I needed this lesson....but I have a quick question, in #6 why is there a comma between Hey & Ben? what's wrong with just saying "Hey Ben!"


You should always use a comma to set off a person's name or title when you are addressing them directly.

amilli wrote:My Home work:

"Will the congregation please rise?" boomed the pastor as he raised his hands.

Standing in the middle pew were Mary-Ann and Frank with big smiles on their faces. They had a testimony, and were bursting with joy.

Mary-Ann whispered, "I can't wait to share our blessing with the rest of the church." Turning to Frank, she asked, "Are you coming with me?"

"You know how nervous I get."

"But God blessed you too, baby," cooed Mary-Ann.

"Was the extra pair of pants still in the car?"

"Why?"

"Cuz ammo need it when I pee in these pair!" said Frank, laughing.


I've put my edits in red. Let me know if you have any questions about them.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby Come forth » Wed Sep 11, 2013 5:55 pm

Hi Jan, yes the ; was meant to be funny.

I'm learning about forums in these lessons too. I've often wondered why things I've said have not gone over well, but in a forum the inflection of voice can not be heard. What sounds funny when said can make you look weird when written.

I must try to remember the :lol:

Blessings, Graham.
May we all get eyes to see and ears to hear,
A Revelation of His Word, crystal clear.
Admitting our need to be drawn in,
Less of self, more of Him.

My prayer for us all.
God bless us with the Revelation of His Word, Graham
http://www.shekinahcloud.com/page/page/8464330.htm

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby amilli » Wed Sep 11, 2013 5:59 pm

"Will the congregation please rise" is more of a statement or a command...

Oh!!! because Mary-Ann and Frank are more than 1...hence, not was but were. (& I re-read it so many times! :roll: ...maybe because I made it up on the spot)

I initially wrote "Are," erased it & settled for "are" because the sentence continued. There was no full stop so I used the lower case "a". Can you clarify please.

As for the commas, they will be the death of me! I did a Writing Processes course, and sat through an entire 5 hr class doing commas, and I still can't master their usage. :oops: I always put them in & take them out thinking it's too much or that they don't fit! Am hopeless! :helpwobble
Amelia

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 11, 2013 7:21 pm

amilli wrote:I initially wrote "Are," erased it & settled for "are" because the sentence continued. There was no full stop so I used the lower case "a". Can you clarify please.


In this sentence...

Turning to Frank, she asked, "Are you coming with me?"

...the bit within the quotation marks, spoken by Mary-Ann, is a complete sentence, so it is punctuated accordingly. If you'd written it like this

"Are you," asked Mary-Ann, "coming with me?"

then you'd keep the continuation of the sentence (the word coming and what follows) lower case, because it is an incomplete sentence.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 11, 2013 7:23 pm

Come forth wrote:Hi Jan, yes the ; was meant to be funny.

I'm learning about forums in these lessons too. I've often wondered why things I've said have not gone over well, but in a forum the inflection of voice can not be heard. What sounds funny when said can make you look weird when written.

I must try to remember the :lol:

Blessings, Graham.


Exactly, Graham! I'm not a huge fan of emoticons, but I use them for the very reason you've just stated. If I read what I'm about to post and I think there's a chance it might be misunderstood, I pick an emoticon that appropriately signals my intended meaning.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

Postby amilli » Thu Sep 12, 2013 1:18 pm

Thanks for clarifying Jan.
Amelia

My writing is a passion, not a hobby!


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