Come and discover the rules in the company of Princess Ricotta, her dim but impressively ripped suitors Prince Square-Jaw and Prince Six-Pack, and her conniving servants Slack-Britches and Mozarella. The fairytale kingdom of Bel Paese awaits you.
Those of you who are already confident about punctuating dialogue can read the fairytale just for fun. I hope you enjoy Ricotta’s adventures, even with unpunctuated dialogue. For those whose punctuation might need a bit of help, keep reading.
Punctuating dialogue is only convention
The conventions of punctuating dialogue have evolved over many years. Some of them seem pretty arbitrary but rules often are. We just have to accept them. Their aim is simple, though: to make it easy for readers to understand what’s going on.
“I was not aware that another guest had arrived,” Amy said politely. She was pleased at how calm she sounded. “Do you expect to make a long stay, sir?”
[An Uncommon Abigail]
— Je ne savais pas qu’un nouvel invité était arrivé, dit Amy. Avez-vous l’intention de séjourner longtemps parmi nous, Sir ?
Elle se félicita du ton tranquille et posé qu’elle avait pu prendre.
[Une étrange suivante]
„Mir is gar nicht aufgefallen dass ein weiterer Gast angereist ist“, bemerkte Amy freundlich, aber mit fester Stimme. Sir war froh, nun wieder einigermaßen ruhig zu klingen. „Haben Sie vor, länger zu bleiben, Sir?“ [Stürmische Herzen im Herbst]
«Non ero informata dell’arrivo di un altro ospite» disse Amy educatamente. Si compiacque della calma che dimostrava. «Prevedete di fermarvi a lungo, signore?» [Amy]
They all use different punctuation, according to their own conventions. Don’t bother about the words. Just note that the conventions differ. You might notice, though, that the French version doesn’t have quotation marks around Amy’s actual speech. That means that descriptive text can’t be included, because the reader might be confused into thinking that Amy says the words aloud. Instead, a separate paragraph is added afterwards. French rules!
Readers know how to read and interpret the conventions of their own language. So we, as professional authors, need to give them the conventions they’re used to seeing. There’s no mystique about punctuating dialogue. It just a set of rules that authors need to learn and then apply.
And the fairytale kingdom of Bel Paese (which uses British rules) will show you how.
Welcome to the Ricotta Dialogues ~ A Fairytale
ONCE UPON A TIME, in the rich and peaceful kingdom of Bel Paese, there ruled a good King, Bill, and his beautiful and beloved Queen, Belle. Paese was full of sunlight and happiness. The people sang as they went about their daily work.
But Queen Belle did not sing. Queen Belle was sad. For in the many years of their marriage, the King and Queen had had no children of their own. And who would rule Bill and Belle’s Paese when they were gone?
Queen Belle knew she had no choice; she consulted a witch. As it happened, she had one more or less to hand since her faithful retainer, Slack-Britches, was well-connected on the witching front. His great-aunt Mascarpone was the head of the local coven. Belle and Mascarpone put their heads together and came up with a foolproof witcherly plan.
And lo! a year later, Queen Belle was cradling a baby daughter in her arms.
King Bill gazed proudly down at their first-born. What shall we call her
Ricotta Belle Paese replied the Queen firmly. It has a fine ring to it, don’t you think, dear? Fit for a princess.
The blue text above is unpunctuated dialogue. Can you punctuate it (without looking at the answers below)?
Punctuating dialogue : the basic sentence #1
“The dog chased the cat,” he said.
A few things to note.
There is a comma before the closing quotation marks. And the speech flag—he said or she said etc—is never capitalised. The full stop goes at the end rather than inside the quote marks.
“The dog chased the cat!” he cried.
“Did the dog chase the cat?” he asked.
Even after a question mark or exclamation mark, the speech flag isn’t capitalised. But most basic dialogue has a comma before the closing quotes, provided it’s followed by a speech flag.
Punctuating dialogue : the basic sentence #2
The second basic dialogue sentence has no speech flag and the punctuation goes inside the closing quotes. So:
You got that right, didn’t you? With the question mark inside the closing quotes? And you probably got the next lines right too:
“Ricotta Belle Paese,” replied the Queen firmly. “It has a fine ring to it, don’t you think, dear? Fit for a princess.”
The Queen’s first speech is our first basic dialogue sentence with a speech flag. So there is a comma after Paese and before the closing quotes. And the speech flag—replied the Queen firmly—has no capital letter. You may have spotted that this flag had the verb first. We could equally well have written it as below. The punctuation rules remain the same.
“Ricotta Belle Paese,” the Queen replied firmly.
If you learn these two basic rules, you’ll be well on the way to punctuating dialogue correctly, because most dialogue in stories uses one or other of these 2 basic types.
The Ricotta Dialogues in full (but unpunctuated)
If you want to read the whole fairytale, you can see the pdf of the full text here. It runs to 2 A4 pages. Print it off, if it helps.
I think you’ll agree, once you’ve tried to read it, that, without punctuation, dialogue can be hard to follow. It’s easy for a reader to trip up without punctuation marks.
And if you’re brave enough to want to attempt to insert all the missing punctuation, why not have a go? No one will be looking over your shoulder.
I’ll admit that some of the dialogue is rather more difficult to punctuate than the basic examples given above. But I’ll be explaining the rules for all of those exceptions later. And I promise that there will be a full answer sheet at the end of this series of blogs.
More basics of punctuating dialogue : split sentences
“The dog chased the cat, but he didn’t catch her,” he said, grinning wickedly.
But what if the flag goes in the middle of the speech? Then you get this:
“The dog chased the cat,” he said, grinning wickedly, “but he didn’t catch her.”
The first part of the sentence looks like a basic type 1 until you get to the word wickedly. Because the speech flag is splitting a single speech, two things change:
1 there is a comma (not a full stop) after the full speech flag;
2 there is no capital letter after the second opening quotation marks.
If you think about it, it makes sense. You saw at the top of this section that the speech was a single sentence. You don’t want to change that. If you’d put a full stop after wickedly, you’d have changed the meaning. You’d have put a great big pause in there, which would have made the rest of the speech into an afterthought, a sort of “and, by the way, he didn’t catch her.”
Try reading these two versions. The meanings are subtly different.
A “The dog chased the cat,” he said, grinning wickedly, “but he didn’t catch her.”
B “The dog chased the cat, he said, grinning wickedly. “But he didn’t catch her.”
If you’re unsure about split sentences like A above, read the speech aloud without the speech flag. You’ll then be able to judge whether the direct speech is one sentence or more than one. The pauses will tell you where the full stops go. Then you can put the speech flag back in.
There are examples of this kind of split dialogue sentence in the Ricotta Dialogues pdf. See if you can work out how to punctuate lines 22 and 28. Or, further down the story, try line 49.
Them’s the rules : a recap
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.
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
Rule 3: a dialogue sentence with a speech flag in the middle eg
“The dog chased the cat,” he said, grinning wickedly, “but he didn’t catch her.”
- 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
- 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.
Good luck! And I’ll be back soon with more examples (and answers) from the Ricotta Dialogues.
Note re double quotes:
I’ve used double quotation marks throughout. You may be aware that most UK publishers use single quotation marks for speech. Most US publishers use double quotes. I normally use double quotes for two reasons: (1) they’re easier to see on screen and on the page; and (2) it’s a doddle to change from double to single quotes via Find/Replace All, but it’s incredibly complicated and tedious to change from single to double—all those apostrophes, in don’t, I’ve, they’ll etc, turn into don”t, I”ve, they”ll and so on. You may have to go through the whole MS to correct them all.
Double quotes are fine for self-publishing, but if you’re writing for a publisher, you should use whatever style they prescribe. Don’t commit the cardinal sin of ignoring your publisher’s conventions.
Them’s the rules!