Do you puzzle over where to put the punctuation when you write speech or conversation? Double or single quotes? Commas or colons?
If you find this a source of existential angst, you’re not alone. As an editor, it’s one of the most pervasive problems I see. But you can get it right, and this is how.
First, the disclaimer
OK, yes, there are multiple different ways to punctuate dialogue, several of which are “correct”. Different nationalities and even different publishers have different styles regarding how they like dialogue punctuated.
And you’ll often read a proper, professional book where the writer has gone a little off-the-reservation punctuationally speaking, and it’s regarded as witty and debonair rather than Wrong.
The format I’m about to show you is a good basic style, which will communicate your meaning effectively without offending anyone, and is easily edited if your publisher wants something slightly different.
And if you decide to deviate into Witty Punctuation later, you can do that from the basis of knowing what effective punctuation looks like. This is a good principle for all writing. If you know how to do it “right”, then you can break as many rules as you like, and do it with panache.
So why does it matter where I put the commas and stuff?
One word: MEANING.
Readers are accustomed to established conventions for how to understand who’s speaking to whom, when they paused, what they sounded like, and a whole range of other issues to do with speech. They absorb these even without necessarily being aware of exactly where each punctuation mark appears. If you put the punctuation in the wrong place, it confuses the reader’s eye, and they may lose track of your meaning, or worse still, give up on your book altogether.
The flow-on effects are these:
- An agent or publisher is less likely to take on your book if the punctuation is a mess — they don’t want the bother of fixing it (and in these very tight economic times for publishing, they can’t afford the bother of fixing it).
- If you throw the first draft together thinking, “Oh, I’ll fix that later,” when you edit it yourself you will wish you had punctuated the dialogue correctly from the start. Trust me on this. It’s an absolute pain to put it in later. Get it right now. It’s not that hard and you’ll be very glad you did.
- If you are self-publishing, you will pay a lot less for editing if you have the punctuation right to begin with. Most editors charge by the hour, and fixing punctuation is one of those fiddly little tasks that consume vast amounts of time. So punctuation-fixing-time is money. Your money.
- If you are self-publishing and hoping your beta readers will do copy-editing for you, they will be your friends for longer if you give them a basically “clean” manuscript. If they have to fix all 5,975 instances of mis-punctuation in dialogue, they will go nuts!
- If you are self-publishing and you don’t edit it at all, and you publish with dodgy, messy dialogue in your book… well I’m sure you can work out the cost of that for yourself. Loss of reputation, loss of readers. People notice and they are not kind in their reviews.
Ready? Here we go. This is the punctuation I first learned as a journalist, waaay back, and I still default to it today. You’ll find it in most newspapers, online or printed, and many book publishers use it too.
1. Use double quotes… [“] not [‘]
“But-but-but!” I hear you say. “I’ve seen single quotes in lots of books!”
Yes indeed. In both the UK and Australia, single quotes are the norm, whereas in the US, double quotes are used.
If you are absolutely rock-solid certain that your publisher wants single quotes, go ahead and use them.
In every other case, I recommend going for double quotes. And this is why: They are easily changed to single quotes. Yes, that’s right, even though it might sound a little prosaic or even odd.
I can change every double quote in an entire manuscript into a single quote in approx 10 seconds, using the Find/Replace command in Word. All you do is enter a double quote [“] in the Find field, and a single quote [‘] in the Replace field, and click Replace All. Voila! Single quotes throughout, and it will even convert them to Smart Quotes for you (the curly ones instead of the straight-up-and-down ones).
This technique doesn”t work in reverse, because you”ll change all your apostrophes to double quotes too, and then you”ll be very sad. 🙁
If you didn’t understand any of that Find/Replace malarkey, just absorb the important point: if you don’t know what your publisher wants, default to double quotes, because it’s more versatile and easier to change later.
2. Use a comma, not a colon or semi-colon or some other thing I haven’t thought of
A comma is the plain vanilla punctuation to place near the [he said/she said].
When the [he said] bit is BEFORE the speech, the comma goes immediately after [said].
He said, “I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue.”
When the [he said] bit is AFTER the speech, the comma goes INSIDE the quotation marks for the US.
“I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue,” he said. (USA)
In the UK and Australia, OFFICIALLY (that is, according to the Oxford and Australian Style Manuals) the placement of the comma depends on whether the pause belongs to the SPEECH, or the SENTENCE. (Getting a headache yet? Yes, I know, me too. Let’s have a cup of tea.) So, take a look at where the comma is below.
“I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue”, he said. (UK, Australia — officially, but not always in practice)
But then compare it to this one.
“I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue,” he said, “and then people will take me seriously as a writer.”
That’s because if [he said] was removed, the speech would need a comma because there’s a pause there: “I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue, and then people will take me seriously as a writer.”
Adding to the fun, if you’re a journalist, you always put that later comma inside, no matter where you are in the world. 😉 (confused yet?)
I’m going to suggest something mischievous here. Unless you are writing an academic work for Australia or the UK, place that comma the American way. That’s because fiction and popular non-fiction often ignore the Style Manuals and follow those conventions anyway. And readers know how to read it.
3. Put the full stop/period inside the quotation marks
When the whole sentence is a piece of dialogue, the full stop/period always goes inside the quotation marks, no matter where you are in the galaxy. Nice to know we can rely on some things!
“I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue.”
4. Multiple sentences can go inside one set of quotation marks
This is a confusion I’ve seen before, where people start new quotation marks for each sentence. In a paragraph, they can all go in one set, if it’s the same person speaking.
“I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue,” he said, “and then people will take me seriously as a writer. The use of punctuation in dialogue seems to really, really affect meaning. Really. Have you noticed that?”
5. You don’t have to use attribution all the time
At the beginning of an exchange, it’s a good idea to identify who’s talking. But then, if there are only two speakers, the reader can follow back and forth. Just keep your eye on it so that the exchange doesn’t go on too long without an attribution. You don’t want your readers getting lost. It’s all about meaning!
“I’m going to learn how to punctuate dialogue,” said Rupert.
“What a great idea!” said Griselda.
“Do you think I’ll find it hard?”
“There’s a learning curve at the beginning, but once you’re in the habit, it comes easily.”
6. Long speeches can be divided into multiple paragraphs
If someone has a lot to say, you can divide it into multiple paragraphs. The usual convention is to leave the closing quote off the end of the paragraph, to signify that the speech is continuing. This could go on for several paragraphs if you had a real talker on your hands! And then the final paragraph of their speech would conclude with a closing quotation mark. This signifies to the reader that the speaker has finally put a sock in it. 😉
You don’t need to keep adding [he said] — the speech can just flow.
Personally, I tend to write in such a way that I can avoid these run-on paragraphs. That’s not because it’s in any way wrong to do this. It’s purely because it’s easy for a reader not to notice that the closing quotation mark isn’t on the end of the paragraph, and so they get confused as to who is speaking, and have to go back and check. Feel free to choose for yourself.
7. But it’s a good idea not to have more than one speaker per paragraph
Some writers will switch between several speakers, all in one paragraph. It is possible to make it clear that the speaker is changing. However, I prefer to avoid this, as it makes it harder for the reader to follow. It’s all about meaning. (Have I said that before?)
So it’s a good idea to begin a new paragraph for each new speaker. No extra charge for a new paragraph, so go on, hit Enter!
Where to find an authority
If you’re still not confident and you really want to make sure you are getting it right technically, check out the Style manual for your region. There’ll be one!
These are the main three that I consult regularly. (They are expensive because they are specialist books, but I find them worth it. They have lots of useful things in them about a whole range of publishing issues, not just punctuation!)
UK: Oxford — New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style For Writers and Editors is the brief version, and the 880 page New Oxford Style Manual is New Hart’s Rules with an added dictionary for writers and editors. I buy mine from BookDepository.co.uk as it has free shipping worldwide. Just go to Book Depository and enter the book name into the search window. From $20-$40 (ish) depending on whether you go for the small one or the comprehensive one.
Australia: Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers (previously known as The Australian Government Style Manual) is 550 pages of Style-ish goodness and costs around $40 (Australian).
How to decide regional differences on a global book
If you are self-publishing for a global audience, which country’s preferences should you follow?
My own decision is to follow primarily US conventions for globally self-published books. The US is a very large English-language readership. Also, UK and Australian readers are accustomed to reading books with US punctuation, because many of them find their way onto our shores, whereas the reverse is not necessarily true. Most US readers won’t have seen many UK/Australian books, and will find the “funny punctuation” jarring and possibly confusing.
Since I have to fall one way or the other, I choose to follow the US conventions for the most part, with fiction and popular non-fiction. (Academic and technical works are different — invest in a Style Manual!)
If you are self-publishing, the decision is up to you. Deciding Style issues is one of the responsibilities of the publisher, and that’s who you are! Scary, huh? 😉
What are your experiences with punctuating dialogue? Is it something you’ve struggled with, or did it come easily? Tell me how it’s been for you, and share any useful tips that have made it easier for you.