Using Correct Punctuation with Dialogue

by Davina on April 14, 2012

Let’s talk about dialogue

Writing dialogue is one alternative to a literary technique known as exposition, which can be the “quickest way to kill a plot’s momentum and get your story bogged down in detail.”

Dialogue moves the plot forward, providing the opportunity to show through telling. A writer will also use it to develop character. You can tell a lot about a character who interrupts another, or finishes another’s sentences.

It can be used to add conflict or heighten suspense. Dialogue also paces the story, breaking up long monologue and creating white space on the page.

Dialogue is comprised of 1) a direct statement or quotation and 2) a dialogue tag (or attribution tag), such as “he said.” Writing seamless dialogue requires correct use of punctuation and capitalization, and attention to the position of the dialogue tag.

How to punctuate dialogue correctly

5 tips to remember:

  1. The direct statement is enclosed in quotation marks.
  2. The direct statement is separated from the dialogue tag by a variety of punctuation, most often the comma.
  3. Commas and periods are always placed inside the quotation mark.
  4. Colons and semicolons are always placed outside the quotation mark.
  5. Question marks and exclamation marks go inside OR outside the quotation mark.

10 examples of dialogue using correct punctuation & capitalization:

Example 1: The dialogue tag follows the direct statement and is separated by a comma, which is placed inside the quotation mark.

“I’ll have the house salad, with the dressing on the side,” said Sally.

Example 2: The direct statement is a complete sentence, which ends with a periodThe dialogue tag, which appears first, is followed by a comma to separate it from the direct statement.

Sally said, “I’ll have the house salad, with the dressing on the side.”

Example 3: The dialogue tag interrupts the direct statement, separated by two commas. The second part of the direct statement does not start with a capital.

“I’ll have the house salad,” said Sally, “with the dressing on the side.”

Example 4: The direct statement is a complete sentence, which ends with a question mark that is placed on the inside of the quotation mark. Notice that the dialogue tag does not begin with a capital.

“Can I have the dressing on the side?” said Sally.

Example 5: The direct statement is made by the waitress and includes a quote, which is placed in single quote marks. Notice that the question mark is placed outside of the single quote mark because it is not part of the quote, and inside the double quote mark because it belongs to the direct statement made by the waitress.

“Did she say, ‘I’d like the dressing on the side’?” said the waitress.

Example 6: This sentence is a question that is quoting someone else’s exclamation. Notice that the exclamation mark is inside of the quote mark because it belongs with the quote. The question mark falls at the end of the sentence and outside of the quote mark because it applies to the complete sentence.

Did I just hear her say, “There’s a fly in my soup!”?

Example 7: The direct statement is a complete sentence, ending with a period. There is no dialogue tag in this example. Instead, a descriptive phrase has been used to indicate who spoke.*

“There’s a fly in my soup.” Sally sighed.

*It would not be ideal to write this as: “There’s a fly in my soup,” sighed Sally because sighing while speaking this number of words would be difficult.

Example 8: The direct statement is followed by a semicolon, which is placed outside of the quotation mark, indicating an afterthought that applies to the statement made by the waitress. It does not belong inside the quotation mark because it is not part of the direct statement.

The waitress said, “Could you please repeat that?”; the restaurant was noisy that evening.

Example 9: If you want to show a character’s silent thoughts, follow the same punctuation and capitalization rules, but eliminate the quotation marks.

This is a busy restaurant, she thought.

Example 10: This is similar to Example 9. The direct statement is a complete sentence ending with a question mark, however, the dialogue tag does not start with a capital. As in the above example, just follow the same punctuation and capitalization rules but eliminate the quotation marks.

How long will I have to wait? she wondered.

Dialogue that spans multiple paragraphs

Whenever the speaker changes, start a new paragraph. Each new paragraph will start with quotation marks.

However, if writing multiple paragraphs of dialogue for the same speaker, only one closing quotation mark is required, which is placed at the end of the final paragraph.

Example:

“Dialogue moves the plot forward,” said Davina, “providing the opportunity to show through telling.

“A writer will also use dialogue to develop character, to illustrate conflict or heighten suspense. Dialogue breaks up monologue and creates white space on the page.

“Writing seamless dialogue requires correct use of punctuation and capitalization, and attention to the position of the dialogue tag.”

If you have any questions about dialogue and punctuation that I’ve not covered here, please ask!

I’d like to hear about other topics you’d like me to cover, too. Just let me know in your comments.

Thanks to Linda at From Roses to Rainbows for requesting that I write on this topic. She writes a collection of poetry and prose on her blog. One of her recent posts — part of a series — touched my heart: The Rose Garden: Allison

Image credit: Marc Wathieu

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{ 17 comments }

Linda April 14, 2012 at 7:54 am

Davina, thank you! I exclaimed out loud when I saw this post. It will help immensely when writing dialog, and I will print these tips for reference. I am sure that if I look back at some of my writing, I will find dialog punctuated incorrectly.

Also, thank you for mentioning From Roses to Rainbows. I am glad you are enjoying the Rose Garden series. I am sure there will be more to come.
Linda´s last blog post ..What Would Daddy Say?

Mike Goad April 14, 2012 at 9:05 am

I don’t do dialog very often in my personal blog. However, when I am posting excerpts of my civil war blog to the facebook fan page, I’ve been finding that I’m doing more and more quotes. Though I generally get them right, this has reminded me of a couple of points I’d forgotten — or never knew. ;)
Mike Goad´s last blog post ..Moving on down the road.

Syeda Mehwish April 15, 2012 at 5:21 am

Hi Davina,
It’s another informative post on using correct punctuation with dialogue and I less often use dialogues in my writing but I have full understanding of where and when we use commas and quotation marks and you well explained this post with the help of examples and one could easily improve his/her mistake after reading this post.
Syeda Mehwish´s last blog post ..Moosejaw Coupon Code and Review

Davina April 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

You’re welcome, Linda :-)
I’m glad this has been helpful for you. It was a fun post to put together, so thanks for the suggestion. I look forward to reading more of your series.

Hi Mike.
These things can slip by us when we don’t use them very often. I bet that since you’re using them more often it will all come flooding back :) Glad that this helped, though.

Hi Syeda.
Thank you. Hey, that’s great that you have learned the correct way to use punctuation while writing dialogue. Good for you! I’m glad you have appreciated these examples.

Jeffrey Willius April 16, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Hi Davina — Thanks for this useful post! As much as I’ve studied and used the language all these years, I’m still unsure sometimes how to punctuate the dialog.
Bravo!
Jeffrey Willius´s last blog post ..WAKING UP – As If For the First Time

Hilary April 17, 2012 at 9:34 am

Hi Davina .. this I’m sure is very interesting .. but I need to come back – after I’ve got rid of the castling I’m doing .. I need to read some of this and inwardly digest it – but not an option right now …

I’ll keep it to return to in May – not that long now!! Cheers and I love the new photo – longer hair .. looks good .. cheers Hilary

Davina April 18, 2012 at 8:43 am

You’re welcome, Jeffrey.
Sometimes it gets a little tricky!

Hi Hilary!
You’ve been busy with all those posts about castles. Doing an alphabetical list/theme is a good idea! I find that with these grammar and punctuation issues, you learn best when you are practising, and you obviously have no need for this right now. Enjoy the rest of your series… you’re almost there. Thanks for your visit and comment. Always a treat! :)

P.S. Thanks for the comment about the new pic. The hair has taken a while to grow out, but it’s almost there!

Pete Goumas April 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Hi Davina,
I liked your examples and I am good in using correct punctuation with dialogue but I saw some writers did this mistake and I hope your post help many readers to correct their punctuation with dialogue.
Pete Goumas´s last blog post ..Advantages of Android Spy App

Davina April 24, 2012 at 8:46 am

Hi Pete.
Thanks for your comment. I hope this will be helpful to folk, too. That’s great that you are confident in your use of punctuation with dialogue. If you have any questions about anything else, please let me know.

Pete Goumas April 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Thankyou Davina for asking me for questions :) I don’t have any question at the moment but I request you to please make a post related to all forms of Passive sentences and if possible about passive causative because few days ago I was searching articles related to passive sentences but I couldnot find any good article which explains all forms of passive sentences in detail.
Pete Goumas´s last blog post ..Vitalicious Discount Coupons & Review

Davina April 28, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Hi Pete.
Thanks for the suggestion. This will be a good one as it’s not one I’ve seen too much of online. I will add this to my list and will let you know as soon as I publish it.

J.D. Meier April 29, 2012 at 10:55 am

Beautiful insights in the art of writing dialogue with skill.

I’ve seen so many authors use so many ways, some more effective than others. I like your scenario-based approach with examples.
J.D. Meier´s last blog post ..Living Your Values

Davina April 30, 2012 at 8:10 am

Thanks, J.D.
Nice to see you here :) I try to keep things simple with these grammar posts. When I do my research I see some great explanations, though some are pretty technical. Examples are a huge help aren’t they?

Pete Goumas May 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Thankyou so much Davina for making post on this topic. I believe that sharing your readers the post, they really want to read is the best quality of a writer.
Pete Goumas´s last blog post ..Mythology

Davina May 6, 2012 at 1:21 pm

You’re welcome, Pete!

Hilary May 10, 2012 at 6:57 am

Hi Davina .. well I’ve come back .. and I’m always surprised how natural it seems to me – I’m sure if I was writing a story I’d probably get it wrong – yet it seems so obvious! I honestly don’t think I learnt this stuff .. as I don’t understand half these words .. and Pete’s request for passive causitive examples …. completely floors me! Again I guess I’d know it if I saw it ..

I went to a French film recently … Mademoiselle Chambon … it was exquisitely slow! And started off with a discussion with their son about transitive phrases and the subject matter … I just thought of you and laughed!!

Cheers Hilary

Davina May 14, 2012 at 10:30 am

Hi Hilary.
LOL, love your story about that French film :-) I know, this terminology boggles my mind. You’re not the only one! Honestly, passive causitive is new to me, so I will quite enjoy researching this one and explaining it in simple terms. I think we tend to know things without knowing what we know or what it is. Here is a short video, if you’re inclined, that explains passive causitive:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxnmhmwWb7E

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