Punctuating Dialogue (3) the Full Punctuation Rules?

magic bookIn this third and final part of the blog series on punctuating dialogue, we’re back in the magical, fairytale kingdom of Bel Paese with the unpunctuated Ricotta Dialogues [click to download]. There’s a link to the punctuated version later in this blog.

You can find part 2 of the series here, and part 1 is here. The latest version of The Rules is at the end of part 2 but I’ll be expanding them at the end of this blog, and providing a printable version, so you might prefer to wait for that magic rule book to be opened 😉

But first, last week’s answer?

I challenged you to punctuate this, from line 52 of the Ricotta Dialogues:

blue question marksMozarella Ricotta raised an admonishing finger there are some things that a minion should not ask.

Without punctuation, it can be pretty hard to understand that sentence. With punctuation, we get something more comprehensible:

 “Mozarella—” Ricotta raised an admonishing finger “—there are some things that a minion should not ask.”

This is one of the more difficult parts of punctuating dialogue—what to do when the speech is interrupted by actions but there is no speech flag, such as “she said”. This kind of dialogue is quite common, but you don’t have to use it if you find it difficult. There are at least two other ways of presenting that bit of dialogue:

  1. Ricotta raised an admonishing finger. “Mozarella, there are some things that a minion should not ask.”
  2. “Mozarella,” Ricotta said, raising an admonishing finger, “there are some things that a minion should not ask.”

In the first alternative, the timing of the admonishing finger changes. It’s no longer raised during Ricotta’s speech; it’s happened before she says a word. Version 2 could be interpreted in the same way. But both have the advantage that the punctuation is easier. Version 1 uses Rule 2. Version 2 uses Rule 3. Simples, no?

Dialogue with action interpolations but no speech flags

The alternatives in green above tend to be less pacy and less immediate than the blue version. If you want to interrupt your dialogue with actions that seem pithy and direct, there’s a simple way to do it, using dashes:

  1. Decide where in your sentence you want to break to put the action in.
  2. Put an em-dash followed by closing quotation marks immediately after the break point word (ie no spaces);
  3. then add your action description without any punctuation at the end;
  4. then put opening quotation marks plus an em-dash immediately before the rest of the sentence of dialogue (again, without spaces).
  5. There is, of course, no initial capital for the second part of the dialogue sentence because it is still a single sentence. In that sense, it works like Rule 3.

Back to our dogs and cats?

“The dog likes to chase the cat up the tree. But what if our cat—” he waved towards the window where the cat was serenely washing its paws “—were to refuse to run and turned on the dog?”

The thing to note here, which wasn’t obvious from the blue Ricotta example above, is that the action phrase does not start with a capital letter. You may want to argue that it should, but it doesn’t. Nor does it have punctuation at the end.
Them’s the rules.

exclamation mark in fireThe above is a recognised way of punctuating dialogue interpolated with action and it is the way I recommend. However, some publishers have different styles for this. You should always adopt the house style of your publisher. That is the professional approach.

But if you’re self-publishing, mine is the route I recommend. (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

Quotes within quotes

Sometimes, a dialogue speech includes a bit of speech from someone else, or some other kind of quotation. There’s an example of this in lines 57-58 of the Ricotta Dialogues. Here they are, punctuated:

Six-Pack, much taken with the honour of having Ricotta to himself at last, bowed low and said, proudly, “They call me ‘Six-Pack the Braw’.”

Muscular man with six-pack and frame on his torso The rule here is simple. If you’re using double quotation marks for speech, you put the quote within the quote into single quotation marks. If you’re using single quotation marks for speech, you put the quote within the quote into double quotation marks. In other words, quotes within quotes use the one you don’t normally use.

Note also that the full stop, for the end of Six-Pack’s sentence, goes after the closing single quote mark and before the double closing quote mark. To show that it makes sense to do that, let’s change the paragraph a bit and add a few more words to the sentence (possibly more words that Six-Pack is used to speaking…?):

Six-Pack, much taken with the honour of having Ricotta to himself at last, bowed low and said, “They call me ‘Six-Pack the Braw’, and I’m verra proud o’ that.”

Are thoughts dialogue?

man holding no entry sign in front of faceThoughts are not dialogue.

Dialogue consists of words that are spoken aloud. Thoughts are internal and not spoken aloud.

Therefore, thoughts are not punctuated as speech and are not enclosed in quotation marks.

If thoughts are spoken aloud, they are punctuated as speech.

There are examples of both in lines 69-71 of the Ricotta Dialogues. Here they are, with punctuation:

“Might as well get it over with,” she said to herself. Raising her voice, she called out, “Mozarella, you may send in the next—” She stopped in mid-sentence. No, that won’t do, she thought. Not princely at all. “Mozarella, pray invite Prince Square-Jaw to join me here for wine and ‘elegant’ conversation.”

The first blue sentence above is actually said aloud and so it appears in quotes. But, later on, her thoughts are not said aloud. As a result, they appear in plain text and without quotation marks. It’s clear, from the “she thought” flag, that these are her internal thoughts.

An alternative to plain text is to use italics. The passage above could have been written as shown below. Note that only the words she thinks are in italics, not the “she thought” flag.

“Might as well get it over with,” she said to herself. Raising her voice, she called out, “Mozarella, you may send in the next—” She stopped in mid-sentence. No, that won’t do, she thought. Not princely at all. “Mozarella, pray invite Prince Square-Jaw to join me here for wine and ‘elegant’ conversation.”

Italics work well for short passages of a character’s thoughts but, if there is a lot of internal monologue, italics can be wearing for the reader and you should probably avoid them. Whichever you choose, be consistent throughout your manuscript.

The Ricotta Dialogues punctuated?

You’ve seen snippets of the punctuated Ricotta Dialogues. You can see the full version here and print it off if you like. (I’ve included blank lines so that the line numbering is unchanged from the unpunctuated version you’ve already seen.)

For those who don’t really need this punctuation guide, I’m including a brief résumé of my rather silly fairytale:

A feisty Princess called Ricotta
Refused to conform as she oughta;
So she kneed Prince Square-Jaw,
And spurned Six-Pack the Braw,
Then scarpered with Slack-Britches’ daughter.

You are allowed to groan…

Them’s the rules : recap #3 (the complete version, reordered)

NB There’s a link at the end to a two-page pdf of the rules in full, if you’d like to print them.

Rule 1: a dialogue sentence with a speech flag eg:
“Ricotta Belle Paese,” replied the Queen firmly.

  • comma (or exclamation mark etc) before closing quote marks; never a full stop
  • no capital at start of speech flag
  • full stop after speech flag
  • a dialogue sentence always starts with a capital after opening quotes, even if the dialogue does not start the whole sentence eg:
    Then, “Perhaps,” he said, brightening, “now that we have a girl child, we might hope for a boy as well? To follow me as king? We’ve had one miracle.”

Rule 2: a dialogue sentence (or sentences) with no speech flag eg:
“What shall we call her?”

  • full stop (or exclamation mark etc) before closing quote marks
  • may be several sentences all within a single set of quotation marks
  • a dialogue sentence always starts with a capital after opening quotes, even if the dialogue does not start the whole sentence (see example in Rule 1).

Rule 3: a dialogue sentence with a speech flag in the middle eg:
“We may always hope,” said Queen Belle airily, “but I think we had best cherish the heir we have, since she took so many years to appear.”

  • provided it’s a single sentence, comma followed by closing quote marks before speech flag; never a full stop
  • no capital for start of speech flag
  • comma after speech flag
  • dialogue sentence always starts with a capital after opening quotes, even if the dialogue does not start the whole sentence (see example in Rule 1)
  • second part of speech sentence begins without capital letter
  • second part of speech sentence ends with full stop (or exclamation mark etc) before closing quotes
  • to check if it’s a single sentence, read it aloud without the speech flag in the middle and judge for yourself.

Rule 4: a dialogue sentence that is incomplete because of interruption eg:
“Definitely fit,” she said. “Either of them turn you on, Princess? If you chose one of them, that would leave the other one for—”

  • em-dash immediately following last word, followed by closing quotes
  • no other punctuation for end of speech.

Rule 5: a dialogue sentence that is incomplete because the speaker tails off eg:
“The dog chased the cat,” he said. “But what if the cat didn’t run? What might she…?”

  • ellipsis immediately following last word, usually followed by closing quotes
  • no other punctuation for end of speech unless it is clearly a question, in which case the ellipsis is followed by a question mark before the closing quotes eg
    “What if…?”

Rule 6: dialogue with interpolated actions but no speech flags eg:
“Mozarella—” Ricotta raised an admonishing finger “—there are some things that a minion should not ask.”

  • em-dash followed by closing quotation marks immediately after the break point word;
  • no space after break point word or between dash and quote marks;
  • action description without initial capital (unless a proper name) and with no punctuation at the end
  • opening quotation marks plus an em-dash immediately before the rest of the sentence of dialogue
  • no space before first word or between quote marks and dash;
  • no capital letter for first word.

Rule 7: quotes within quotes, eg:
Six-Pack, much taken with the honour of having Ricotta to himself at last, bowed low and said, “They call me ‘Six-Pack the Braw’, and I’m verra proud o’ that.”

  • quotes within quotes use the version of quotation marks that you are not using for normal dialogue
  • punctuation goes outside the quotation marks for quotes within quotes.

Rule 8: paragraphing dialogue

  • only one person should speak in a paragraph
  • speaker A’s actions may be in the paragraph of A’s speech, or in a separate paragraph before/after the pararaph of A’s speech
  • a speaker’s actions should never be in a paragraph where another speaker speaks
  • there are no closing quotation marks at the end of a paragraph of speech if the same speaker’s words begin the next paragraph. That next paragraph does, however, begin with opening quotation marks, eg:
    “We may always hope,” said Queen Belle airily, “but I think we had best cherish the heir we have, since she took so many years to appear.” She smiled at her husband. “When she is old enough to marry, we can look for the right kind of suitor. It goes without saying that he must be a prince. Blue blood is paramount in the reigning business. And preferably a rich prince, though I suppose Ricotta will be rich enough to marry a poor one if nothing better is on offer.
    “Ricotta will be allowed to choose for herself, of course. We want her to be in love, as we were,” she added, gazing wistfully over King Bill’s shoulder.

Rule 9: punctuating thoughts eg:
“Might as well get it over with,” she said to herself. Raising her voice, she called out, “Mozarella, you may send in the next—” She stopped in mid-sentence. No, that won’t do, she thought. Not princely at all. “Mozarella, pray invite Prince Square-Jaw to join me here for wine and ‘elegant’ conversation.”

  • no quotation marks for thoughts unless they are spoken aloud
  • thoughts usually shown in plain text
  • alternatively, thoughts may be shown in italics (as green example above) but avoid having pages of italics, since they can be difficult to read
  • be consistent in using either plain text, or italics, for thoughts.

If you would find it useful to have these Rules in printed format, you can find a pdf of them here. I really hope you find these blogs helpful. And if I’ve missed anything, please ask a question in the comments and I’ll try to provide an answer.

Happy punctuating!

Joanna Maitland author

Joanna, woman of rules

7 thoughts on “Punctuating Dialogue (3) the Full Punctuation Rules?

  1. Joanna Post author

    An apology to all those who get this blog via email. For some unfathomable reason, the email version has put a lot of The Rules at the end of the blog into all caps instead of bold, which is how it appears in the blog here. It makes the email version difficult to read and I’m sorry. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it because I’ve no idea why it happened.

    Reply
  2. Sue Cook

    Thank you for this. I only came across this correct way of puncuating dialogue that is interrupted by an action phrase when i sent an MSS off to an editor. I don’t actually like how it looks, so I admit I am trying to find other ways to phrase it. But, as you say, sometimes that lacks immediacy.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree that it can look odd, Sue, but if the action phrase is punctuated as a separate sentence, the whole thing looks even odder, I promise you. So I’ve got used to doing it according to the Rules and living with it. It does create immediacy, as you say, and allows actions and speech to go forward together. Sometimes, that’s what’s needed, isn’t it?

      Reply
  3. Elizabeth Anna Bailey

    Great series. I have downloaded the pdf as I sometimes have clients who have trouble with punctuating dialogue and this makes it so clear. Thank you very much. I will of course credit your work if I pass it on.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      You are welcome to use this if it’s helpful, Liz. Use the Ricotta Dialogues too, if you like. As long as I get a credit, I’m happy. No charge 😉 But do tell your clients to come to the Libertà blog. The more the merrier…

      Reply

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