Sometimes we read dialogue so often, punctuated in so many different ways, that we either forget what we've learned (if that was anything memorable to begin with) or we rely on instinct to guide us. A common example of this can be seen in the opening dialogue of darksouldream's piece, Bobby:
No, replied Cindy `I think his sister Becky is staying with her, but she keeps muttering about parents out living children. The doctors been keeping her pretty sedated.
Most Americans will cringe at this. Why? Well, double quotation marks are the more acceptable usage (the "traditional convention") in American Standard English. However, in British Standard English, both the double quotation mark and single quotation mark are used. What's the rule? Stylistically, there is no absolute must-do-it-this-way-or-else method. As long as you use the convention consistently, most people will not complain.
However, the double quotation marks are often the more preferable way. Why? Because a quote-within-a-quote is distinguished by the single quotation mark and, if the author is using the single quotation mark to denote all dialogue, it can make the punctuation confusing to the reader. Observe:
"Hamlet said, 'To be or not to be' in the Shakespearean play bearing his name," answered Rose.
'Hamlet said, 'To be or not to be' in the Shakespearean play bearing his name,' answered Rose.
Now, this example is not incredibly confusing either way, but it is certainly easy to see how several single-quote marks all in a row might give the reader a temporary headache. Does this mean that you should immediately change all of your dialogue to double-quote marks? No, most certainly not. But if you plan to use the quote-within-a-quote convention, it's important to be aware of this typesetter problem.
One should also note that most editors and publishers will change the author's punctuation to suit the style (often the typesetter style, which is the double quotation mark) of that publication. The author usually has very little say in this switch, but one shouldn't be offended. It's the words that matter, after all.
My Advice? I'd suggest erring on the side of caution and using the double-quote marks; it's simply cleaner.
This does beg the question, however: are there any universally accepted rules to punctuating dialogue? As a matter of fact, yes! One occurs in :sejongkim19179's piece, Kris and Christ:
Go away. She whispered again and again.
What we have here is a perfect way to introduce the concept of a dialogue tag. What is a dialogue tag? It's the statement or description that indentifies who is speaking in written dialogue. In the above, the dialogue tag would be "She whispered again and again" as this shows that She is speaking. Dialogue tags are necessary in written dialogue to help the reader figure out who's saying what. If your reader can't follow the speaker, your reader can't follow the story.
So how, then, do we punctuate the dialogue tag? Well, this is the universally accepted rulethe only one that everyone seems to agree on: a comma should always separate the quotation from the dialogue tag. In other words, that period up there isn't correct. It should rather be:
"Go away," she whispered again and again.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Should the comma be inside the quotation marks or outside the quotation marks? That very question has led to bloodshed across editors' desks all across the world. "Yes!" say some; "No!" scream others. Is there an answer to this devastating dilemma? Actually, yesand it has very little to do with where you live.
The rulethe actual, honest-to-God rule (no matter where on the Globe you are), is this: periods and commas go inside the quotation marks; all other punctuation (semicolons, question marks, dashes, exclamation points) goes outside the quotation marks.
As with all things, however, there are exceptions. Sometimes, if the question mark (etc.) is part of the quotation, it can happily go inside the quotation marks without breaking any rules. For example, it makes more sense to put a question mark inside the quotation marks if what is inside the quotation marks is the question. Example:
"Are you going to the party?" asked Jake.
Similarly, it makes more sense to put the question mark outside of the quotation marks if the sentence, itself, is the question.
Am I hearing things or did the teacher just say, "That pop quiz from Monday was horrible"?
Why, then, is there such confusion? Why do people cite the British way versus the American way and defend it bitterly to the end? Well, it goes back to the single-quote versus double-quote debate. Typesetters traditionally preferred one way (punctuation inside the quotation marks), and that way was most commonly adopted by American Standard English (much like the double-quote marks). However, in British Standard English, tradition relies on the function of the punctuation mark; in other words, it's all about grammar. If the punctuation is part of the quoted phrase, then it is supposed to go inside the quotation marks (makes sense, right?); if the punctuation is not part of the quoted phrase, then it is supposed to go outside of the quotation marks (as it's part of the sentence, instead). This has led to confusion because both ways adopt the extreme: all punctuation goes inside or all punctuation goes outside--and neither of those are correct. The correct method, which is a combination of the two, is quote above in the rule.
However, real confusion arises because neither print media in either country (or other countries the have adopted British English) use these rules consistently. Yup, that's right: the newspapers can't even agreeand they're supposed to know the rules by heart! Some BSE folks put the punctuation inside the quotations marks and some Americans stick it outside; it's like politically correct punctuation!
My Advice? I tend to believe that punctuation should follow function (also known as logical quotation) and the rule, but as I grew up in the American Education System, I am not bothered by the punctuation inside the quotation marks and can often be found defaulting to that method. What I will say is, as with all things, you must be consistent. If you are going to let your punctuation follow function, then it has to follow function throughout the entire piece. If you are going to keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks, then I suggest sticking to that.
For those of you still in school, I would simply suggest doing as your teacher tells you. Some teachers do have a preference or truly believe that only one way is correct. If that teacher is grading you, give her what she wants. You will both be happier for it.
Is that really the only rule that everyone agrees on? Well, not really. There are a few others. One is extremely relevant and often confused, and evenaftertwelve exhibits the perfect piece to introduce the concept in parts of John Bruckhenman:
Im going to Africa, I replied with a hint of pride. Im working with AIDS research and internal communications development.
You - I thrust a finger at him decidedly - are the reason the world hates us. You know how it works; Im not going to teach you. But if you just let the poor get poorer, things will fall apart.
So what're we looking at here? We're looking at dialogue tags that interrupt the sentence. In other words, dialogue that drops off for a description or statement and then picks up again later in the sentence. Believe it or not, there is a way to do this correctly. The rule, in fact, is rather straightforward: when a dialogue tag interrupts a sentence, it should be offset by commas; when this occurs, the second part of the quotation should begin with a lowercase letter. This often confuses people, as the set-in-stone rule is that all dialogue should begin with a capital letter. That rule is correct, and necessary, and should always be observed.
Isn't the "straightforward" rule a contradiction, then? Why, no. No, it's not. Notice that all quotations or all instances of dialogue should begin with a capital letter. Take this sentence:
"I wonder," she said aloud, "if there are any pelicans in Pelican Bay".
The dialogue and quotation begins with "I wonder", and the "I" is capitalized appropriately. However, the "if" does not begin a new set of dialogue or a new sentence, nor does it begin a new subject. It's a continuation. And because it's a continuation, it does not need (and, indeed, should never have) a capital letter at its start. Sounds pretty easy, right?
So where does that leave us with evenaftertwelve's text? In the first example, there are two complete-but-related sections of dialogue, and they are punctuated correctly. The first sentence says that the speaker is going to Africa. The second sentence tells us what the speaker will be working on. Each begins with a capital letter, because each is a separate piece of dialogue. Similarly, the commas are used to separate the quotations from the dialogue tags. Everything here looks great!
And then we come to the second example. What's missing here are commas. The continued dialogue is represented correctly with a lowercase letter, but instead of using commas to offset the statement or description, the author has used dashes. This is, I'm sorry to say, incorrect in every style guide out there. The commas are necessary. That said, the correct way to punctuate the line is:
"You," I thrust a finger at him decidedly, "are the reason the world hates us. You know how it works; I'm not going to teach you. But if you just let the poor get poorer, things will fall apart."
My Advice? It's simple: follow the rule(s). If there's a rule out there that everyone agrees on, it's probably a good idea to actually take it to heart. It's true that some rules are made to be broken, but this isn't one of them. Your editor will thank you.
There is another rule that's universally accepted, though it doesn't crop up as often in prose as the other rules tend to. The rule deals with quotations (with one speaker) that run over into multiple paragraphs. Let's say the speaker really has a lot to say, and all of it just won't fit into one paragraph. That's okay! There's nothing wrong with that. There is, however, a correct way to represent that in print.
The rule to introducing dialogue is to open with a quotation mark (single or double). When that dialogue ends, we call the quotation mark following the end an "end quote". It's where the phrase "quote/end-quote" comes in. All dialogue should be closed (the end of all dialogue should be marked) with this closing "end quote" mark (again, whether single or double). If the dialogue is running into a new paragraph (in other words, if the speaker is not finished speaking), then you should not put an "end quote" until the dialogue is complete. Observe:
"My grandmother had twelve children and my mother had three. She'd always wanted fourtwo boys and two girlsbut after the second boy she gave up. He was a handful, that's for sure. One timeI think he was nine or tenhe stole the family car and drove to the market. He could hardly see over the steering wheel, but he got back in one piece. He was always like thatdoing things too young, being hectic and hell-bentbeing his own man. He was always so anxious to get away. We never really understood him, but we loved him anyway.
"Really, thoughI came from a long line of women who came from a long line of women who knew how to make babies. We were good Catholics. We were dutiful and obedient and happy for the chance. Sex as pleasurewell, that's a concept I still don't understand. Sex was for making babies. Sex was a responsibility you had to your husband. It bounced between being sacred and being a sin. I'm still not sure which is which," Mary finished, looking away.
After the first paragraph, Mary is not finished speaking. We know this for two reasons: one, the end quote is missing; two, there are new quotation marks at the start of the next paragraph. As there's been no indication of a speaker change (which would occur with a dialogue tag), the reader understands that this is simply a continuation of the speech. At the end of the second paragraph, Mary finishes; we know this by both the inclusion of the end quote and the dialogue tag.
My Advice? This rule is standard. Regardless of where you put your commas or periods or other marks, the end quote should only be used to show the end of the quotation, and each new paragraph of the continued quotation should include a new beginning quotation mark (single or double, depending).
So what do you do with more than one speaker? Well, I'm awfully glad you asked! This rule is also very simpleand it's also universal. When the speaker changes, so too should the paragraph. Let's look at kittyfantastic's piece, The Elephant in The Cafe:
Adam looked up from his newspaper.
I see that the Tories are proposing stricter controls on immigration laws in their next referendum. About bloody time too.
Brian, a staunch Labour supporter, laughed.
Yeah right. Like you know anything about politics mate. Its all just political propaganda. Getting up on a soapbox, shouting the odds. They know immigration is a popular subject right now, so theyre pandering to the masses. Must be desperate for votes.
Charlotte, who had been busy texting on her new mobile, looked aghast.
So you dont think we should be thinking about the effect that asylum seekers are having on our economy? Havent you seen the news? The reason our taxes are increasing is to support a mass of free-loading refugees, who only come to Britain as a way of gaining free housing and health benefits. They take our jobs and end up forcing our schools to teach subjects like Swahili and Voodoo-for beginners.
The three of them laughed again. The waitress silently returned with steaming cups of coffee and tea, and placed a jug of milk on the table. As she left, Diana arrived, dragging her backpack behind her.
This snippet is perfect for explaining paragraph breaks in dialogue. The first rule of thumb is, again, that the paragraph should change with the speaker. But what do we do with all that description in between? Where do we put our dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags should directly precede or follow the dialogue they are attached to. Proper formatting, which is essential to representing dialogue in print, would look like this:
Adam looked up from his newspaper. I see that the Tories are proposing stricter controls on immigration laws in their next referendum. About bloody time too.
Brian, a staunch Labour supporter, laughed. Yeah right. Like you know anything about politics mate. Its all just political propaganda. Getting up on a soapbox, shouting the odds. They know immigration is a popular subject right now, so theyre pandering to the masses. Must be desperate for votes.
Charlotte, who had been busy texting on her new mobile, looked aghast. So you dont think we should be thinking about the effect that asylum seekers are having on our economy? Havent you seen the news? The reason our taxes are increasing is to support a mass of free-loading refugees, who only come to Britain as a way of gaining free housing and health benefits. They take our jobs and end up forcing our schools to teach subjects like Swahili and Voodoo-for beginners. The three of them laughed again. The waitress silently returned with steaming cups of coffee and tea, and placed a jug of milk on the table. As she left, Diana arrived, dragging her backpack behind her.
It's a small changea subtle onebut it really improves the way the reader approaches the text. It also makes it abundantly clear who is speaking and shows how list-like and repetitive the dialogue tags are structured, which not only helps the reader but can help the writer revise and improve what's already on the page. If there's one thing we can say about dialogue, it's that we don't want it to sound like a list. The combination of descriptions, tags, and quotations should feel natural and never forced.
My Advice? Do not go line break or paragraph happy. Paragraphs should be used to represent a change in speaker, but all relevant tags and descriptions should follow or precede said dialogue without breaking lines or creating new paragraphs. Observe:
"I heard that you have AIDS." Well now, I thought before turning around, what a lovely way to begin a morning.
"My name's Bill," I said, offering a hand and a lopsided smile. "It's nice to meet you, too." The man, awkward and embarrassed, took my hand; his shake was weakwet. A few moments passed in silence, and then I cleared my throat, rocked back on my heels, and folded my arms. "You heard wrong."
"Oh" his voice trailed off and I felt momentarily sympathetic.
Here we see the description and tags following the dialogue with each new paragraph representing a change in speaker. It's a good thing to get in the habit of, as your reader will thank you in the end. In fact, knowing this rule makes you a better reader, as it gives you an expectation when reading dialogue in print.
Beyond the Standard
So what do we do with something like the conventions used in erinamis's text, Ashes to Ashes?
- What happened? Why is the plant dead? I whispered at the sight of the yellow leaves, the pendant steam as if it needed more energy to be straight.
- Well, I have no idea replied Mandy, my co-worker who had come with me for work But its a shame, it was so pretty I guess pretty things dont last long, huh?
I smiled but kept staring at the plant. Mandy sat on her desk, turning the computer on.
- Whats the matter? she asked, realizing I wasnt moving from the entrance.
- Its just weird I replied As far as I can remember, the plant was growing fine. It had even begun blossoming; around September, I think, it had those cute little blue flowers water drops, I said to myself, as it was how I used to call them and then it collapsed. Just like that!
Grammarians all over the world are shuddering right now, no doubt, and others are rejoicing at the site of something other than a double or single quote mark. Some see this as blasphemy; some, as creative. Is there a rule that can bridge the gap? Actually, yes.
The dash can effectively and correctly represent dialogue; however, it should only be used under very specific circumstances. The dash can either be used to separate one speaker from another or to separate a direct question from its answer. This separation generally occurs when the dialogue is being represented continuously as part of a paragraph. For example:
Neil: So this is how it's going to be? Chris: Yeah, this is it from now on. I don't want you coming around here anymore. Neil: That so? Guess "bros before hoes" just isn't true for you. Chris: You make me sick.
What did the doctor say? Which doctor? The doctor you went to yesterday. I don't know, I forget which you said. Oh, right, the pediatrician. He said Charlie should be fine in a day or two.
The dash should not take the place of quotation marks in most styles of writing, especially straight prose, and it should rarely be used to represent a switch in speakers where quotation marks would be more appropriate. In fact, the general rule of using a dash at all is not to use it where another punctuation mark can do the job better. This applies to dialogue rules and to writing in general.
My Advice? Avoid using the dash to separate dialogue if another punctuation mark is more effective or acceptable (such as the quotation mark).
That does bring up a good question, though: when should a writer use the dash in dialogue? There's an easy answer to this, believe it or not. A dash can be used in dialogue for two reasons (in addition to the standard uses for the dash in prose writing): to represent a shift in tone or to represent a break or hesitation in thought. This is different from the ellipsis (...), which should only be used to represent dialogue that trails off and is likely to begin again.
Let's see this in action using an example from dariusthered's text, The Conversation:
But was the single word Nightstalker had interjected, cutting him off as he stared at Darius unblinking, trying to burn the truth to the surface with those cat-like eyes of his.
Darius sighed as he turned back to the fire. He spoke after a few moments You do not understand. My only purpose has been to stop the madness that was started seven years ago. I cannot afford the risk of was all he said, not finding the courage to finish the sentence as he stared off into the night, looking away so that he could hide his weakness for just a moment.
Let's also look at examples from illuminara's piece, Can You Hear Me?:
Tabitha sighed again and brushed a loose strand of black hair behind her ear. Im just . . . sick of all the drama going on.
Yeah, you and the rest of the world.
Then talk to me. Whats going on? I know theres more that you havent told anyone.
She took a deep breath. Yeah . . .
Dads company needs him in Houston by the end of next month.
Okay . . .
Were moving in three weeks. The company already has a house for us there and will take care of selling ours.
So, its really gonna happen, he said softly.
Its not like Dads gonna turn down a promotion thatll more than double his salary. Tabby took a shaky breath and began to walk again. But it doesnt matter. Ill just . . . be tough and face the real world. Not like I can change anything.
Ben silently fell into step beside her. They passed a park full of screaming kids and laughing teenagers, then the Dairy Queen. He finally wet his lips and spoke again. You dont have to pretend to be something youre not. Its okay to let your emotions out.
No, its not. Not around my dad.
What would you think in his position? This is great for him, not to mention the fact that hell be able to provide more for his family.
I dont care about having more . . . more stuff! Thats what nobody gets. I dont care about a bigger house or a nicer car or trendy clothes. I just want a place to call home and friends who actually get me. Just when I finally start to feel like I have that, hes got to go and move again!
In both texts, we see the ellipses but no dashes. Remember, a dash is used to show a hesitation or break in thought or a change in tone. An ellipsis, on the other hand, is used to show thoughts that are trailing off and/or can be picked up again. The difference is subtle, but it's there.
In the first example by dariusthered, the speaker very obviously cuts off what he is saying and has no intention of picking it back up again. It's a break in thought and, as such, should be represented by the dash.
In the second example by illuminara, the ellipsis is used correctly. Im just . . . sick of all the drama going on" shows a trailing off that has every intention of picking the conversation back up. It's not an abrupt change of tone or thought, even though it is a pause, and as such the dash would be inappropriate.
In the third example by illuminara we have quite a few things going on. With "Yeah..." the speaker is very obviously trailing off in both thought and speech. It's not an abrupt break or a change in thought, simply a hesitation. As such, either convention would be appropriate depending on the author's intention. Using "Yeah" would represent a cut off with no interest in continuing the conversation in that direction. "Yeah..." shows that the speaker is hesitating and trailing off and probably would like to continue the conversation if given the chance to find the right words (or some gentle prodding). As such, I believe the ellipsis is more appropriate here but, again, either the dash or the ellipsis would be acceptable.
In contrast to the earlier "just...sick" convention, I would recommend a dash for "I dont care about having more . . . more stuff! Thats what nobody gets." The reason I'd like a dash here instead of the ellipsis is that this does represent a change in tone (or at least an escalation of tone) as well as a notable hesitation represented by the repetitive use of "more". This sentence reads to me as, "I don't care about having moremore stuff!" with the emphasis on stuff in a disgusted or exasperated tone. Yes, the dialogue is picking itself up again, but not because the speaker is trailing off; the dialogue breaks because the speaker is frustrated and trying to get her point across. This makes it a tone issue rather than a content issue.
However, illuminara does help us discover the appropriate way to use the ellipsisnot just through intent, but also in how a writer should punctuate what comes after the ellipsis when that ellipsis is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the sentence. This is the age-old, "Do I really put four dots in a row?" question.
The short answer? Probably.
When using the ellipsis in dialogue to end a sentence, such as we see with "Okay..." above, one must make two decisions: 1) am I putting my punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks and 2) what punctuation mark should end this sentence. The ellipsis used inside quotation marks should never be the end punctuation for the sentence. In other words, "Okay..." should either be "Okay...." with the four dots inside the quotation marks or "Okay...". with the period outside of the quotation marks. It could also be "Okay...?" or "Okay..."? or "Okay...!" or "Okay..."! (etc.) depending on what the writer intends. Whichever way is most appropriate and comfortable, that end punctuation must be present.
We're not done with ellipses yet. Kindly direct your attention to this quote from josephbenton's text, Let's Talk:
Right, whatever Im sorry I didnt mean to hurt you I just dont want you to die alone.
Notice all those dots after "whatever"? This helps to illustrate a great point: an ellipsis is three dots (...) and three dots only. You do not make the "pause" longer in dialogue by adding more dots. Two ellipses should never appear side-by-side (that would be like putting two exclamation points or question marks or semicolons or periods after a sentence or statementwhich should also never happen) and, as such, a reader should never see more than four dots (if one is the end punctuation) in a row in anything a person writes. Ever.
One correct way to punctuate the above sentence is as follows:
Right, whatever. Im sorry. I didnt mean to hurt you. I justdont want you to die alone.
As always, there are other correct ways to punctuate the above sentence, but I assure you that none of them involve more than four dots in a row.
Internal Dialogue is a dialogue that someone is having with him/herself (or someone else), usually not aloud. If quotation marks are not being used to represent dialogue anywhere else in the piece, they can be used to represent the internal dialogue; all standard rules would apply. If double quotation marks are being used to represent regular dialogue elsewhere in the text, then single quotation marks can be used for internal dialoguebut this can get messy and is often avoided. In truth, internal dialogue is most often italicized in place of using the quotation marks, with the dialogue tags in regular print. Observe:
I can't believe I'm doing this, Amy thought. I can't believe I actually agreed to go.
Yes, wellI suppose it's for the best. I mean, Amy conceded to herself, it's an adventure, right?
Here, the "speaker" doesn't change, but the "side" of the speaker changes, so a new paragraph represents that change. And, instead of using quotation marks, one sees the italics and is quickly able to differentiate between something be said aloud and something being thought. Internal dialogue is also one of those places where the dash might be helpful to differentiate thoughts and speakers, but italics seem to be the preferred method.
Internal dialogue can occur between two speakers as well, such as one might see in fantasy or science fiction stories where two characters are speaking using their mindsor when there is a character, such as one's conscience, speaking while one character is listening and answering. Regardless, the italics are still the most acceptable tactic.
Rules for Reference: Punctuation
Whether you made it this far or you just skipped down to get the real deal, here's a quick overview of the "proper" rules to punctuating dialogue:
1. All quotations or all instances of dialogue should begin with a capital letter.
2. Use quotation marks to represent the beginning of each dialogue and an end quote to represent the end of said dialogue.
3. Whether you choose to use single-quote marks or double-quote marks, use them consistently.
4. Dialogue-within-dialogue should always be represented by single-quote marks.
5. A comma should always separate the quotation from the dialogue tag.
6. No matter where in the world you live, the actual rule is that periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, and all other punctuation (semicolons, question marks, dashes, exclamation points) goes outside the quotation marks.
7. If a dialogue tag interrupts a sentence, it should be offset by commas; when this occurs, the second part of the quotation should begin with a lowercase letter.
8. If the dialogue is running into a new paragraph (in other words, if the speaker is not finished speaking), then each new paragraph should open with quotation marks, but you should not put an "end quote" until the dialogue is complete (so, at the end of the final paragraph of speech).
9. Dialogue tags should directly precede or follow the dialogue they are attached to instead of being separated on their own line or as their own paragraph.
10. A change in speaker equals a change in paragraph.
11. Dashes are used to show a shift in tone or to represent a break or hesitation in thought.
12. The ellipsis (...) should only be used to represent dialogue that trails off and is likely to begin again.
13. The ellipsis used inside quotation marks should never be the end punctuation for the sentence. You need to add end punctuation after the dialogue.
Addendum: Is it Dialogue or Dialog?
Both are acceptable. Dialog is a variant of dialogue. It's true that "dialogue" is more common, but that does not make "dialog" incorrect.