Dialogue: Punctuation

“There was something I was going to write about for my Indies Unlimited post this week,” I said to my daughter Kat. “Do you remember what it was?”

“Hmm. Maybe it was punctuation in dialogue,” she said.

“You’re right!” I said. “You were saying that your teachers never went over it in school.”

“Yeah,” she said. “We concentrated on learning the rules for writing essays, because that’s what kids need to know to pass the state-mandated tests.”

I interjected, “Which the kids need to do so the teachers can keep their jobs.”

“Exactly. And there’s no dialogue in an essay.”

“Gotcha,” I said. “So here’s how I think of it. Dialogue is a sentence inside a sentence.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said. “I think you’ll need to give some examples.”

“I was just about to,” I replied. “Let’s use the phrase, ‘do you remember when.’”

She shrugged. “Sure. Whatever.”

“If you’re asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotes: Do you remember when?” I said. “Same for an exclamation mark: I do remember when!”

“But what if the sentence inside the quotes ends with a period?” she asked.

“That’s a little trickier,” I said.

“I knew this was going to get complicated,” she muttered.

“Nah, it’s not that hard,” I said. “You just have to watch where your attribution is.”

“Your what?”

“Your ‘she said’ or ‘he said.’ If the attribution comes after the end of the sentence, like I’m doing right now, then you replace the period at the end of the sentence with a comma,” I explained. “And the comma stays inside the quotation marks.”

Then I said, “But if the attribution comes first, like in this paragraph, then the sentence inside the quotes gets a period at the end. And just like with the comma, the period goes inside the quotes.”

“And if there’s no attribution?”

“The stuff inside the quotes gets a period – like this.”


“And if,” I said, “your attribution comes in the middle of a sentence, you need to put a comma before the first close-quote mark.”

“I think I get all that,” she said. “But it’s punctuating the attribution that seems to trip up a lot of people.”

“That’s because they’re not thinking of dialogue as a sentence within a sentence,” I said. “The attribution frames the quote – it’s all one sentence. I’ve seen what you’re talking about, too; they hang the ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ out there as a separate sentence.”

“Yes, like this.” She said.

I said. “Or like this. But it’s wrong. You need to use a comma to tie the quote and the attribution together.”

“Okay. But there are times when you can end a quote without tying it into the next sentence.” She smirked at me.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, missy,” I said. “That second sentence of yours isn’t attribution – it’s a stage direction!”

“Yes!” she cried. “And now let’s talk about a pet peeve of mine, and it’s something I’ve caught you doing.”

“Oh,” I groaned, “I know where this is going.”

“See? See? You just did it again!” she crowed. “There is no way you could have groaned through that whole sentence!”

I hung my head in shame. “You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I should have put a period after ‘groaned’. That’s another reason why ‘said’ is the safest verb to use for attribution. It sure is a good thing you’re one of my beta readers, huh?”

“It’s a good thing for you, yeah,” she said, smirking.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

34 thoughts on “Dialogue: Punctuation”

  1. Wonderful! Perfect way to show not tell – great post, Lynne.

    And yes, “said” is an invisible word, and it’s a typical newbie mistake to substitute with every kind of synonym.

  2. Delightful and informative post! Errors in dialogue punctuation are among the most common mistakes I see in stories submitted to the site where I’m a moderator. This explains it all perfectly.

  3. I’ve noticed two ways publishers space quotes within quotes.
    1) John said, “I asked him, ‘Are you well?'”
    2) John said, “I asked him, ‘Are you well?’ ”
    Some formatting in books put a space between the single and double quotation marks and some don’t. It may be also that the formatting isn’t a complete space as between words but just an increased space. This can be done with InDesign and I’m sure with other formatting software.

    Has anyone else noticed this?

    1. I have a problem in Word sometimes (grr, Word…) where if I try to put a ‘ directly after a “, it will make the ‘ curl the wrong way. If I put a space in between, it’s not a problem. Maybe that’s what you’re seeing?

  4. Question marks still confuse me. “Will you have a cup of coffee?” she said. I want to put a comma somewhere. Why isn’t the she capitalized? Didn’t the ?” end the sentence?
    I know what the rules say, but it still doesn’t look right. I suppose I need to memorize your post so I don’t muck it up and have to keep going to those Internet sites. 🙂

    1. The question mark ended the internal sentence, yes, but the “she said” is part of the frame. Think of nesting boxes: Will you have a cup of coffee? is the smaller box, inside the larger box created by the quotation marks and the “she said.” Does that help?

      The question mark (or exclamation point) replaces the comma/period. So no, you don’t need a comma before “she said.”

  5. Great post, should clear up some of the mis-quotes we see in print. I’ve been writing to Jeopardy for years asking them to please put the commas inside the quotes, but so far, no luck!

  6. Lynne,
    Where was your post earlier? I just did major edits on my five novels, and this was a frequent need for revision. I think my editor knocked it into my head, but your post will certainly help others.
    Great post!

    1. Argh! A classic example of confusing a stage direction with attribution. The verb in the sentence you’re attaching to the quote has to have something to do with *speech*, guys.

  7. Wonderful post, Lynne; it cuts right to the point with clear, concise and easy to understand directives. Incorrect punctuation in dialogue is a pet hate of mine, and there is a lot of it about!

  8. Such a creative approach to writing about a subject that can make some people groan, Lynne. Like in Canada, NZ and UK, we don’t follow the same grammar and dialogue rules down here in Australia and, from reading globally, I think I’ve developed some sort of strange hybrid in my writing.

    That aside, I really want to say how much I appreciated your article; fresh and fun. And informative.

    1. Thanks, Karen. 🙂 I know that UK style, which I assume is also used in Australia, swaps single quotes for double quotes. Also, there’s a difference in period/comma placement in quoted material (as opposed to dialogue — I *think* the dialogue rules are the same as US style). I’d love to hear about any other differences.

      And as an aside for language geeks, many languages use quotation marks other than the ones English uses. Wikipedia has a list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-English_usage_of_quotation_marks

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