How to Use Proper Punctuation When Writing Dialogue


Yesterday, in preparation for the State Writing Exam, some of my colleagues and I had a conversation about quotation marks in dialogue and how to properly punctuate them. As with any other type of punctuation, people tend to be confused and mystified. Dialogue seems to be one of the most feared forms of punctuation, but it needn’t be. Here’s the lowdown on punctuation for dialogue.

1. Place quotation marks around the words that actually come out of the person’s mouth.

I tell my students if the words go in a comic strip bubble, then quotation marks go around those words. I ask them if they ever see the words he said or she said in a comic strip bubble. Usually they reply in the negative. If they answer in the affirmative, I tell them to go read a comic book.

2. Place ending periods and commas inside the end quotation mark.

Mariah said, “I want an elephant for my birthday.”

3. Place proper punctuation at the end of the sentence.

“I want an elephant for my birthday,” Mariah repeated.

4. Each time a person speaks, begin a new paragraph.

Mariah stomped her foot and demanded, “I want an elephant for my birthday!”

“Certainly, honey,” her father replied. “Anything for my angel.”

5. Capitalize the first word of what the person says, even if it occurs in the middle of a larger sentence.

Mariah’s mother asked her husband, “Where are you planning on keeping this elephant?”

Please note that this is the practice for punctuation of dialogue in American English. Other countries may use a slight variation.

Common mistakes I see in student writing as well as adult writing include placing the commas or periods outside the quotation marks and forgetting to place punctuation at the complete end of the sentence. These are easy to correct when you know these five rules for punctuating dialogue.

Now I’ll leave Mariah’s family to work out the details of housing and care of their elephant. Perhaps they should give Mariah some lessons in manners instead.

Creative Commons License
How to Use Proper Punctuation When Writing Dialogue by Suzanne Pitner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://teacherwriter.net/2009/02/25/how-to-use-proper-punctuation-when-writing-dialogue/.

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64 responses to “How to Use Proper Punctuation When Writing Dialogue

  1. You have created a very succinct guide to writing dialogue. I teach an online English course through Moodle in my district. Could I have permission to copy and paste this information into my course?

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  2. Some of this is obvious, other parts are a great review.

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  3. It might be obvious, but some people have a hard time even grasping the basics, so they’ll still be new to what you or I might take for granted.

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  4. I have written two books, it’s my understanding if the same person is speaking in the paragraph, you needn’t use quotations separately if they continue in conversation, unless there is a break in the paragraph between sentences. Please respond to my question if you should have time. For example: “I walked across the street, Kaye stated. When I got there no one was at home.” would you comment as to whether or not I used the quotations properly? K

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  5. Hi Kate,

    That’s a great question. In American English, which is what I use, we always put quotations around the words coming out of the person’s mouth. Any tags are outside of quotes. So properly written it would be, “I walked across the street,” Kaye stated. “When I got there no one was at home.”

    American English also keeps the punctuation inside the quotation marks, whereas British English has the punctuation outside the marks.

    So my answer to you is, there are regional differences, but if you’re using American English, the tags will be outside the quotation marks.

    Does that help?

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  6. i got here because of my english holiday hw last year. i was on my last question and this is my resource for help.

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  7. i had to write a short story so i am stuck alittle. haha i will try to complete it.

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  8. Hi Dina,

    I hope you were able to finish your short story. I’m happy you found my site. Thanks so much for stopping by. Are there other topics you’d like me to write about?

    Like

  9. Petunia Coconut

    I am a middle school teacher. After grading so many papers with incorrect punctuation, I still find myself looking up the rules to make sure I am not the one who is going crazy! Thank you for the quick reference.

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  10. You’re welcome. It’s true, I sometimes find myself spelling like my fifth graders after seeing their words so many times!

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  11. I was writing my “Cause and Effect Essay” and I wanted to use dialogue, but I was afraid to because I wasn’t sure how to punctuate and set it all up. Now, thanks to you, I can finish my essay and use dialogue in all my writing without worry. Thank you very much!

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  12. You’re very welcome! I’m curious…is the “Cause and Effect Essay” a “he said, she said” sort of thing?

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  13. The essay is written in first person point of view and it’s about a boy (Akuto Sai, the narrator) who accidentally travels to another dimension. It starts off with Akuto walking home from school and encountering a giant hole in the middle of air. A fracture in space and time. He goes in and ends up in a place called Fiutron, Niburu. He finds a device that allows more than 100% of the brain to be used. He takes it and goes back to his own dimension using the same warp hole he used to get in. A few weeks later, aliens from Niburu invade the earth, destroying everything, in search of the device Akuto had stolen. The leader of Niburu confronts Akuto and that’s when dialogue kicks into the story. Akuto is killed by Yami, the leader of Niburu at the end of the story. The dialogue part of the story is very short. By “he said, she said” do mean something like a conversation that goes back and forth?

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  14. What an interesting sounding story. From your synopsis, I can see other themes in there besides cause and effect.

    By “he said, she said” I was referring to the kind of conversation where one person says something, the other person misinterprets it, and it causes a chain of effects. The conversation can go back and forth as they try to work out the cause and effect development. That doesn’t sound very clear, does it?

    “He said she said” happens all the time when I say something, then my husband interprets it to mean I want something, and he does it or buys it or makes it. He expects me to be very excited, and my response is usually, “Where did you ever get that idea?” For example, I must have once said those black and white greeting cards with little kids kissing on the front were cute. I probably said it in an offhand way. Now those are the only kinds of cards I get, because he’s convinced they’re my favorite and I love them. I’m not sure where he got that idea.

    Whew! This went on long. I hope that helped explain it.

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  15. i’m so happy to get the answer

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  16. Jessica Harrison

    This is very helpful :)

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  17. this is reallly going to help me in the writing exam thank you very much for so much info

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  18. G’day,

    I was taught the focus of dialogue is the person speaking and what they have to say is the one paragraph, even if they mention two topics in the same bit of conversation. Of late I’ve noticed a lot of US amateur authors are splitting a single person’s dialogue into two paragraphs if they cover two topics, even if both are one sentence paragraphs. They leave the closing quotation mark off the end of the first part of the dialogue and enclose the second in quotations at both ends. They claim this is the proper practice, yet I was never taught this. Is this a new standard in the USA

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    • Sometimes, long blocks of dialogue will cover more than one paragraph. As strange as it appears, leaving the quotation mark off until the end is proper practice. I wasn’t taught this in grade school either, but I was taught it in graduate school. The Purdue University Online Writing Laboratory is an excellent resource for questions such as these. Here’s a quote from their reference page on quotation marks.

        Writing Dialogue

        Write each person’s spoken words, however brief, as a separate paragraph. Use commas to set off dialogue tags such as “she said” or “he explained.” If one person’s speech goes on for more than one paragraph, use quotation marks to open the dialogue at the beginning of each paragraph. However, do not use closing quotation marks until the end of the final paragraph where that character is speaking.

      Retrieved from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/04/ on March 10, 2012.

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      • G’day,

        OK, I can see this with a long monologue type dialogue, but what’s bugging me at the moment is where authors do this with short one sentence dialogues. In examples I’ve seen in recent amateur author work they start a new paragraph if the subject being spoken of changes – here’s an example:

        Jerry said, “Of course you come in and work next week. The flood is over.

        “Your holidays are still OK to go.

        “Make sure you bring the truck from Steve’s when you come in Tuesday.”
        ………

        The authors claim this is correct due to that leave the closing quote thing off. I was taught this should be:

        Jerry said, “Of course you come in and work next week. The flood is over. Your holidays are still OK to go. Make sure you bring the truck from Steve’s when you come in Tuesday.”
        ……..

        I was taught you change paragraphs when you change focus of the paragraph, i.e. the subject, but in this case the focus / subject is on Jerry speaking not on what he’s speaking about. Yet the authors doing the above claim it’s the subject he’s talking about.

        Can you clarify this usage above, please?
        …………..

        On a another note, I break up monologues into separate paragraphs by inserting actions at appropriate points, so you get things like:

        “… that’s the database structure.” He stops for a drink of water.

        Looking out over the class, he continues, “Now for the interface design, you …”

        I find it makes it very clear what’s going on.

        Regards,

        Ernest

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  19. At the risk of getting in the middle of a grammarian argument, I have to say that I agree with you, Ernest. In your example, Jerry is speaking about someone coming in to work and bringing the truck when he or she returns. That should be in one paragraph, as it’s all really one topic, coming to work after a flood. Paragraphs should indicate a change of topic, as you said.

    I also tend to break up monologues with character action, as you do, for the same reason. It adds clarity. Many modern readers are intimidated by long blocks of text, and this practice addresses that problem. You can also add emotional resonance by inserting actions and reactions into long blocks of dialogue.

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  20. Could I switch this to a question mark with dialogue?
    Example: “Could you meet us Tuesday morning?” Jerry asked.
    Does the question mark go at the end of the question, or after Jerry asked?
    Thank you!
    Sylvia M.

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    • Hi Sylvia,

      The question mark goes inside the quotation marks just as you typed it. The reason is, you’re punctuating the words that come out of Jerry’s mouth. We’re not asking the question, Jerry asked? someone else is asking Jerry to meet on Tuesday. Remember, in dialogue, punctuate the spoken words.

      Thanks for the question. It was a good one!

      Like

  21. liberalcynic

    Thanks for writing this blog. I furiously edit whatever I write, and some rules and regulations for grammar are welcome. Still, no matter how ruthless I am, some mistakes always escape me!

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  22. You’re very welcome.Those pesky mistakes do seem to find a way to edge into our writing, don’t they?

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  23. Very helpful! Thank you!

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  24. You’re welcome. Thanks for coming by!

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  25. When referring to a character as Honey, instead of their proper name, should Honey/honey be capitalized? I’ve had advice both ways – still confused. I’ve been using the suggestion that when replacing a proper name with a nickname, capitalize. What do you think/know?

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  26. If it’s a term of endearment or a social nickname, do not capitalize it. Only capitalize proper nouns and proper names. For example,

    “Could you pass me the butter, honey?” could mean the speaker is talking to any person. It could be a husband, child, or other person.

    “Could you pass me the butter, Honey?” means the speaker is addressing a person whose name is Honey.

    Does that help?

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  27. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it, you are a great author. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back very soon. I want to encourage that you continue your great work, have a nice morning!

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  28. Hi. I’ve been reading your previous conversations. I Googled my question and found you. I’m so glad.
    In dialogue punctuation, I’ve read that after the period and quotation marks, the dialogue tag’s first letter is not capitalized, as though a new sentence. Such as: “I’m so sleepy.” she said.
    However, I tire of, he said, she saids. I use actions or atmosphereic comments to help flush out the situation for tags. Are they capitalized or not. Such as: “I’m so sleepy.” Fatigue had paled Mary’s face.
    No capitalization after a period end quote took me by surprise. I’d appreciate your confirmation on that, as well.

    Thanks so much.

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    • Great question! If you use a period in the quotations, you capitalize the tag. However, the tag must be a complete sentence. In your example, the tag she said is a dependent clause. Therefore, you should use a comma in the dialogue quotation marks, and continue with the tag, uncapitalized. If you use actions as a tag, and it’s a complete separate sentence, then place a period in the quotation marks and capitalize the tag. Does this help clear it up?

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  29. I’m not sure my other reply posted. I just wanted to make sure you know how I appreciate your advise. You helped me comprehend the rule.

    Thanks so much.

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  30. I have read discrepant MLA rules for citing dialogue. Some say to write a separate paragraph for each change in speaker while others say to do this only if you exceed four lines of dialogue. And others have stated that, like drama, you write separate paragraphs once you exceed two lines only. Which is correct? Also, if I am block quoting dialogue from fiction–not drama–already in double quotation marks in its entirety, do I as the essay writer add a third quotation mark as I would do in a prosaic quote within a block quote? Thanks!

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    • Nick, I don’t know what else you’ve read, or where they’re coming from, but I was taught under the Aussie system (read UK English system) and everything I’ve been taught or read says you HAVE to have a new paragraph for each change of speaker (even if it’s only one word like yes) to indicate it’s a different speaker.

      You may incorporate narrative actions by others in between bits of dialogue by others, but not another’s dialogue. Thus to have Fred speak, then a narrative nod by Joe, and Fred speak again can be one paragraph. But of Joe says Yes instead of nodding, then it’s three paragraphs, one for each speaker of dialogue.

      Ernest

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  31. Hi. This is a little off the dialogue subject, but I thought you may help. I’m editing a book in the form of numerous letters to a friend with troubles. He uses many quotes from the Bible, but he does not cite the Chapter and Verse. For example: That reminds me of the twenty third Psalm where it says, “Yea, though I walk, etc.
    My question is, does he need to properly identify the verse, and should it be italicized? I have searched everywhere for a hard rule on this and have found nothing. Thanks if you can help.

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    • It’s considered VERY rude not to include the source of the quotation. In most cases the book, author and page is sufficient, but with Bible quotes the usual process is to quote the verse in the format of Book, chapter: verse – – such as John, 4: 2. Some people will use italics, some won’t, but you should use quotation marks and any quotation format style relevant to what you’re doing – in some cases this mean extra indentations.

      Ernest

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  32. Thank you so much for your valued information and help. This will help me persuade my client to do the right thing.

    Like

  33. Pingback: Formatting Dialogue in Fiction « CookingUpFae

  34. If I am writing a story that doesn’t end with dialoge, and how would I end it?

    “That’s excellent!” Mary stated. OR “That’s excellent,” Mary stated!

    Which one would be proper? Thanks!

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  35. As someone who learned to write during the period of reversed and soft rules, this is helpful. Our oldest son came home with an assigment on punctuation and disecting part of speach. I was dumbfounded. When I mentioned it to my own mother she told me what he was being taught was the way it used to be. I had been one of the fortunate ones caught in the educational trend of ignore the rules just express yourself. Well, now that I am working on a manuscript, I find myself constantly being flagged by grammer checks, misuse of puntuation etc.It still is confusing.
    thanks for the help- it’s a start.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Deb. Honestly, I didn’t learn proper rules of punctuation and grammar until I was in college. I believe my teachers simply weren’t clear enough about it to teach it themselves. So I too, had to learn after I’d finished high school.

      I pity the children in my classes now. I demand perfect punctuation. But guess what? They pay close attention to their writing now. :-)

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  36. Capitalization had me stumped related to dialog so I used Google to search. This was helpful. You have a great site. I will bookmark it for future perusal.

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  37. i am in yea 8 and we were asked for homework to punctuate a comic strip. In the comic strip a character speaks and the in the next block in the comic strip the character speaks again starting with a capital letter do i keep the character’s two dialogue in the same quotation mark, or do i start a new line even though it is the same character and no other character spoke before him .

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    • If you’re using a comic strip, just place the dialogue in the bubble for each block. If you’re transcribing the dialogue to a written paper, then you’ll use quotation marks at the beginning and the end of all the character said, as long as no one else interrupts him. For example, in cartoon format it would look like this. Bubble 1: I want an ice cream sundae.
      Bubble 2: I’m going to Sweet Spot. Do you want to come along?
      In paragraph format, it would look like this:
      “I want an ice cream sundae. I’m going to Sweet Spot. Do you want to come along?”

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  38. Hey there,
    Just wondering on this one:
    I said to the man “We don’t sell that here,” he replied “Okay, have a nice day.”
    In the given example would the comma used be wrong, or would it be right?

    Thanks!

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  39. Sorry, I was regarding the comma within the first quotation marks.

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    • Oh, good, I’m glad you clarified that. That piece of dialogue should have a period after the word “here” as in this corrected example:
      I said to the man, “We don’t sell that here.”

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  40. Pingback: Teaching Simply: Edit Writing in Ten Minutes | TeacherWriter

  41. Great Blog and great advice. I’m still struggling with the use of the colon (:) when writing dialogue. Example:

    He looked at the queen again and honestly replied:
    “Yes, Your Majesty, you are well informed . . .”

    Is this correct, or should it be:

    He looked at the queen again and honestly replied, “Yes, Your Majesty, you are well informed . . .”

    In the second case the opening quotation marks would not neatly align at the beginning of the paragraphs.

    Thank you for your kind advice.

    Like

  42. When the character thinks or talks to himself, should this be:

    Then he said to himself: “God knows what the security people are up to this time.”
    Or
    Then he said to himself, “God knows what the security people are up to this time.”

    Thanks again.

    Like

  43. I, too, am helping edit a book which includes many Bible references and quotations. I have two questions:

    First of all, I’m befuddled with when to actually use quotation marks. I’d like to save them for when a person is actually speaking aloud, or when a New Testament writer is quoting an Old Testament scripture. Currently the book most often uses quotation marks around every single reference.

    Example: The key thought of this entire book is contained in Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

    I personally would like to simply put the words of the verse in italics, and save quotation marks for actual quotations. However, I don’t want to get ticketed by the punctuation police!

    My second question also involves punctuation; this time after a reference. It appears that one should punctuate this way:

    Jesus wept (John 11:35).

    But it irks me to not put a period after the word “wept”. I understand that not putting a full stop after the parentheses could lead people to think the reference corresponds to the following sentence. Must I simply let go of what looks correct to me?

    Thank you.

    Like

  44. Wow, this piece of writing is good, my sister is analyzing such things, so I am going to tell her.

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  45. Thank you for this! I’m doing a creative writing quarter with my high schoolers to teach writing (instead of just a ton of essays), and even though my major was in creative writing I was finding it difficult to break down all the nuances of dialogue for them in a way they would understand. (Probably BECAUSE my major was creative writing…)

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