“Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“To use Mr. Goodwin’s favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don’t. I’ll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we’ll see. Tell me forty minutes before you’re ready.”
Her eyes widened. “Forty minutes?”
“Yes. I knew you didn’t know.”

— Nero Wolfe and Lucy Valdon in The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout

april_talkI’ll admit it, I didn’t know how to punctuate dialogue when I started writing. I thought I  knew, but there’s more to writing dialogue than putting quotation marks around the stuff characters say. My punctuation would let people know which parts were spoken and which were not, but, like Mr. Wolfe would tell me about my scrambled eggs, an editor would tell me that I didn’t know how to do it. I’ve learned a lot about punctuating this dialogue stuff, and I’d like to share it. I’m going to keep the explanations brief and provide some links for more information. This is more like a cheat sheet than an extensive guide.

The Most Simple Case – Dialogue Only

“This is good cheese.”

All the punctuation goes inside the quotes. That’s all there is to it. Exclamation points and question marks work exactly the same.

“This is great cheese!”
“Are you sure this is cheese?”


Speaking Attributions and Actions

However, dialogue usually has other stuff with it that tells you who is speaking. Something that tells you who is speaking is a speaking attribution. It can also be mixed with actions that don’t tell you who is speaking, but still makes it obvious who is.

“That’s such a sweet puppy,” Sue cooed.
“That’s such a sweet puppy.” Sue smiled.

The verb in the speaking attribution has to be something that produces the words in the dialogue, so the verbs will be things like: said, shouted, asked, replied, yelled, whispered, grumbled, so on and so forth. It’s an easy mistake some actions for speaking attributions like smiling in the action above, but Sue’s smile isn’t making those words so it’s an action and needs to be punctuated as such.


Dialogue with a Speaking Attribution

When the attribution follows the quotes, then use a comma. The ‘he’ shouldn’t be capitalized since it isn’t the beginning of the sentence.

“This is good cheese,” he said.

When the attribution leads the quotes, then use a comma. However, treat the beginning of the quoted section as the beginning of a new sentence so ‘This’ is capitalized.

She said, “This is good cheese.”

When the attribution is in the middle of the quoted words, then use commas to offset the quotes. The first comma should be in the quotes and second should be before the quotes.

“This,” John said, “is good cheese.”


Dialogue with Actions

When you combine the quoted speech with an action. The action should be placed into its own sentence instead of being a clause attached with a comma. Likewise the dialogue is all in it’s own sentence as well. Like stand-alone dialogue all the punctuation for the quoted speech is in the quotes.

“This is good cheese.” She placed another slice on a cracker.
He licked his lips. “This is good cheese.”

But what if you want the action in the middle of the sentence? In this case the action is like a parenthetical phrase and should be offset with commas like such.  It ends up being exactly the same as a speaking attribution, but for different reasons.

“This,” she took a bite, “is some good cheese.”

Another way to interrupt speech with action is to use em-dashes like such. The dashes should both be outside the quotes.

“This”–she took a bite–“is some good cheese.”

Exclamations Points and Question Marks

The rule for exclamation points and question marks is that you may use them in place of commas when appropriate.

So when used with a speaking attribution, remember to not capitalize the attribution when the exclamation point or question mark is replacing a comma.

“What kind of cheese is that?” she asked.
“What kind of cheese is that?” She pointed at the block next to Jeff.
“Eat that cheese before we run out of time!” he shouted.
“Eat that cheese before we run out of time!” He pointed to the wheel of chedder.

Unfinished Speech

Sometimes a speaking character will get interrupted or will trail off. There is punctuation for both cases.

In the event that a character is interrupted or otherwise ends his or her dialogue abruptly, use an em-dash to indicate this.

“I rather like Toronto in the–” John caught sight of the block of cheese and came to an abrupt halt.

If the speech ends because the character trails off, then use an ellipsis to indicate it. When this is followed by a speaking attribution, then put a comma after the ellipsis.

“I’d rather…,” Sue said, bemused. “Is that cheese?”

If the ellipsis is followed by an action attribution, then the sentence should simply end as normally done with an ellipsis. If the fragment is not grammatically complete, then the terminal punctuation is omitted. However, if the fragment is grammatically complete, then the terminal punctuation should proceed the ellipsis.

Grammatically incomplete:

“I’d rather…” Sue sniffed the air, bemused. “Is that cheese?”

Grammatically complete:

“I’d never go there again!…” Sue sniffed the air, bemused. “Is that cheese?”


Multiple Speakers

This is a straightforward rule. When you change speakers, start a new paragraph. The snippet that opens this blog post is an excellent example.

“Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?”

“Yes, of course.”

“To use Mr. Goodwin’s favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don’t. I’ll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we’ll see. Tell me forty minutes before you’re ready.”

Her eyes widened. “Forty minutes?”

“Yes. I knew you didn’t know.”

Multiple Paragraphs in a Single Quote

In this case, you start each paragraph in the quote with a quotation mark, but only end the last paragraph with a quotation mark.

“Hundreds of types of cheese from various countries are produced. Their styles, textures and flavors depend on the origin of the milk (including the animal’s diet), whether they have been pasteurized, the butterfat content, the bacteria and mold, the processing, and aging. Herbs, spices, or wood smoke may be used as flavoring agents. The yellow to red color of many cheeses, such as Red Leicester, is produced by adding annatto. Other ingredients may be added to some cheeses, such as black pepper, garlic, chives or cranberries.

“For a few cheeses, the milk is curdled by adding acids such as vinegar or lemon juice. Most cheeses are acidified to a lesser degree by bacteria, which turn milk sugars into lactic acid, then the addition of rennet completes the curdling. Vegetarian alternatives to rennet are available; most are produced by fermentation of the fungus Mucor miehei, but others have been extracted from various species of the Cynara thistle family. Cheesemakers near a dairy region may benefit from fresher, lower-priced milk, and lower shipping costs.

“Cheese is valued for its portability, long life, and high content of fat, protein, calcium, and phosphorus. Cheese is more compact and has a longer shelf life than milk, although how long a cheese will keep depends on the type of cheese; labels on packets of cheese often claim that a cheese should be consumed within three to five days of opening. Generally speaking, hard cheeses, such as parmesan last longer than soft cheeses, such as Brie or goat’s milk cheese. The long storage life of some cheeses, especially when encased in a protective rind, allows selling when markets are favorable.”


Quoting Inside Quotes

Use single quotes for when a character is quoting someone else and put a space between the single quote and double quote when they run together.

“She always used to ask, ‘Why do you like cheese so much?'”

Check out this link with loads of good information about how to quote dialog: http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/

Please let me know if anything is wrong. I want my guide to be as accurate as I can make it, and I’m not a grammar expert. I can go back and add or edit it as time permits to make it even better–like a manuscript.

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